The dark web drug trade

The dark web is fast becoming a key provider for street drugs like heroin, carfentanil and LSD. Accessed through special browsers and identity-protecting software, customers can browse this online “Amazon of drugs” and order illicit substances for home delivery.

The allure of the dark web drug market consists not just of ease and the variety of illicit drugs on offer, but the anonymity they provide to clients. Users often use programs like Tor to hide their locations and identities, as well as encryption codes for communication between buyers and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to process payments, which can make it nearly impossible for law enforcement to track the trade and movement of drugs around the world. In addition, dark web vendors are also subjected to service and product reviews that assess the quality, purity, and shipping times of the products they sell, often leading to higher quality drugs than what can be found on the street.

Canadian vendors once accounted for 96 of the dealers on Alphabay, the largest global drug dealing market on the dark web, which sold $94 million USD in drug sales in its final year before being shut down by law enforcement. Dream Market, with over 100,000 listings, is now considered the largest dark net shopping destination for drugs, with half of its listed substances classified as either illicit, unregulated, or diverted from legitimate sources. In addition to drugs, Dream Market also deals in designer clothes, counterfeit money, and stolen online banking information.

“[Since] the dark web is anonymous, it allows for a very easy vehicle in order for people to buy drugs…They don’t need to go to a back alley or a street corner and meet somebody they’ve never met before, which could potentially put them in harm’s way. They can sit at their computer or their smartphone, and they can purchase the drug of their choice and have it delivered to their home…it opens [fentanyl] up to a market that probably wasn’t there before.” Sgt. Mike Lalande of the Calgary Police Service, cybercrime investigator

Canadian users of the dark web drug market are mostly opting to buy from only Canadian vendors, as importing illicit substances across the border brings with it the risk of investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency, which has the authority to open and inspect any package entering Canada (compared to domestic mail, for which police must first obtain a search warrant or cite reasonable grounds to open suspicious packages). In Canada, Dream Market offers approximately 1,000 listings for domestic drugs, including opium, morphine, fentanyl, ecstasy, ketamine, and date-rape drugs.

Although researcher Meropi Tsanetakis of the University of Oslo and the University of Vienna says that most users of the nearly two dozen dark net drug markets are young adult males, largely occasional drug users with a relatively smaller number of addicts, this online access is fueling the fentanyl crisis.

Now that the drug trade is moving online, Lalande says municipal law enforcement agencies have been forced to target global vendors to trace shipments and financial transactions as well as fight the battle at home. Canadian arrests have already been made, including one Calgary man who now faces a dozen drug trafficking charges, and the disruption of a dark web fentanyl and carfentanil tracking and exportation business that saw two people arrested in Kelowna, B.C.

The RCMP has instituted a national investigative strategy to combat the mail order drug trade in Canada, and has partnered with Canada Post, Health Canada, as well as the CBSA to stem the illicit trade of substances within its borders. Additionally, the RCMP has declared its attempt to “identify shipping and manufacturing trends, international exporters, domestic distributors, clandestine labs and criminal networks in order to understand the fentanyl situation.”

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