The Australian National University (ANU) has found that police raids on the dark web marketplaces have dented the supply of opioids, like fentanyl being sold illegally online.
The report (pdf), commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s (AIC) Serious and Organised Crime Research Laboratory, examined how law enforcement seizures and the subsequent black market closures affected the availability of opioids on the darknet. The darknet refers to a specifically used network for a criminal purpose and can only be accessed through specific software like Tor or Freenet.
“We found evidence that shutdowns resulting from transnational police operations dispersed and displaced markets, vendors and buyers, and it also reduced the availability of these drugs and their prices on the markets,” Lead Researcher Emeritus Professor Roderic Broadhurst said.
“When there is a crackdown, there is a knock-on effect; it is like a searchlight, and markets become aware that they are going to get a bright light shined on them for that particular product, especially high-risk product such as fentanyl,” he said.
Of all illicit drugs, the study found that Fentanyl, which is 80 times more powerful than morphine, and is the most sought-after drug on the darknet, was the most severely impacted by police interventions.
Another popular drug Carfentanil, which was originally designed to sedate elephants, was also affected.
In Australia, the value of illicit drugs seizures was equal to a retail market valued at AU$5 billion, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission in 2019.
Meanwhile, the cost of opioid misuse of an estimated 104,000 Australians from 2015-2016 is about AUS $5.6 billion, including “health services, crime, traffic accidents, and premature loss of life.”
The situation is becoming more complex during the COVID-19 pandemic as darknet markets demand was boosted and buyers were looking for alternative means of supply, including getting the illegal drugs delivered to the home in “small stealth” mail packages, the Emeritus Professor said.
Broadhurst noted, though, that efforts to take down the $790 million darknet market by international law enforcement agencies are often hampered by the ease with which new sites can open up.
“The markets response to law enforcement can be seen to be like the game whack-a-mole, with markets popping up somewhere else if one is closed down. And when they pop up again, they are reshaped,” he said.
In April 2019, the study found that three new markets—Agartha, Dream Alt and Samsara—emerged after Wall Street and Valhalla were busted by police and the dark web’s biggest drug website, Dream, closed.
Broadhurst said black markets are resilient as they can “pop up again” after being closed “with a refreshed set of security features, price hikes or even self-regulation of the kinds of products sold to avoid the spotlight.”
Over 4,100 opioid vendors and 2 million listings of illicit drugs and other contraband were identified in 2019, the ANU study found.