Darknet takedowns by cross-border law enforcement operations make opioids scarcer but more expensive, according to a new report from the Australian National University (ANU).
The report – commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s (AIC) Serious and Organised Crime Research Laboratory – analysed the effect of law enforcement seizures and dark web market closures, including the availability of the highly potent synthetic opioids fentanyl (up to 80 times more powerful than morphine) and carfentanil (designed to sedate elephants).
The research was done at the height of the availability of these drugs in 2019. Shutdowns from transnational police operations dispersed and displaced markets, vendors and buyers, and reduced the availability of these drugs; while their prices rose on the markets.
“When police seize and close down a market, or target a particular illicit product, the impact is complex and subtle,” Emeritus Professor Roderic Broadhurst, from the ANU Cybercrime Observatory, said.
AIC Deputy Director Dr Rick Brown said the research results reinforced the importance of sustained law enforcement operations to combat the sale of opioids and other drugs online.
“This report has shown that darknet markets are complex. Vendors move quickly to sell their products elsewhere when markets shut down, and it’s not until several major markets closed that we saw a real impact on total opioid listings,” Dr Brown said.
The researchers collected data over 352 weekdays, from 2 January to 20 December 2019, looking at eight “high street” darknet markets that sell contraband including illicit drugs: Apollon, Empire, Dream, Nightmare, Tochka (aka Point), Berlusconi, Valhalla (aka Silkitie) and Wall Street.
The researchers tracked trends to measure changes in the price and availability of opioids, and the numbers of vendors or dealers selling them.
In April 2019, three new markets – Agartha, Dream Alt and Samsara – were added after law enforcement seized Wall Street and Valhalla, and Dream voluntarily closed.
In July, new market Cryptonia was added after Nightmare shut themselves down and ran off with buyers’ and vendors’ funds. Among the original markets, only Empire remained active at the end of 2019.
The voluntary closure of Dream dispersed and displaced both emerging and popular active and robust markets, so overall listings of opioids increased.
However, when law enforcement subsequently shut down Wall Street – where most of the fentanyl was listed – vendors moved elsewhere to list their products.
“Law enforcement can be seen to be like the game whack-a-mole, with markets popping up somewhere else if one is closed down,” Professor Broadhurst said. “And when they pop up again, they are reshaped.”
When Berlusconi, a large, Italian based darknet market that grew significantly in response to other market closures, was itself taken down, overall opioid listings significantly decreased.
“Since their inception, dark web markets have continued to evolve, and they present unique problems to law enforcement agencies,” Professor 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 shone on them for that particular product, especially high-risk product such as fentanyl.”
Market operators and vendors were keenly aware of the risks, and adapted accordingly, Professor Broadhurst said. Markets closed down and popped up again with refreshed security features, price hikes, or even self-regulation of the products sold, to avoid the spotlight. Many markets – particularly those that want to stay operational – ban vendors from selling those sorts of products, just like they do with child exploitation materials.
This research was done pre-COVID; now, Professor Broadhurst said, buyers seek alternative means of supply, such as small stealth packages posted home. “Since the pandemic, everybody’s going online. Markets have been boosted by increased demand by buyers and vendors able to supply or substitute products such as opioids, partly to get around problems with lockdowns, and border closures.”
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