Can You Still Buy Illegal Drugs Online?

By Paul Gaita 09/11/14

In the wake of Silk Road's demise, online drug marketplaces have become smarter and are offering a wider variety of illegal products.

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From 2011 to 2013, Silk Road was widely considered the “Amazon.com” of online black marketplaces, selling an incredible variety of drugs and drug-related paraphernalia, including heroin, LSD and marijuana to users around the globe. By the summer of 2013, the site had reportedly earned $1 billion in sales, all paid through the bitcoin cryptocurrency. But within a few months, Silk Road was in tatters, its alleged owner Ross William Ulbricht arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and soliciting murder, among other charges; most recently, bitcoin company owner Charlie Shrem pled guilty to charges of aiding and abetting Silk Road, and faces up to five years in federal prison. The site mounted a brief comeback in a “2.0” mode in late 2013 but was again shuttered by February 2014 by hacker attacks. But as Silk Road sunk into oblivion, a new array of online drug markets rose to take its place, each offering a unique challenge to U.S. and international drug enforcement agencies.

The World Drug Report 2014 issued by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), notes that the online marketplace for illegal drugs has grown not only larger but more willing to risk arrest by selling a wider and more dangerous array of substances. While Silk Road 2.0 was under siege in early 2014, a new site, DarkList, stepped into the void to connect buyers and dealers in a Yelp-style arrangement, but was soon surpassed by Agora which, as of September 2014, offered more product listings, including weapons, than any other online black market. Both were followed by such pirate vendors as Deepbay, Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded, which dubbed itself “Silk Road without morals” (for making available weapons and child pornography to buyers), all of which took pages from Silk Road by only accepting bitcoins for payment and protecting its users with the anonymity software Tor. Sales figures are impossible to determine, given the levels of encryption utilized by these sites, but they are estimated to be a small fraction of the global drug trade, which brings in an estimated hundred billion dollars. A portion of that amount would still result in staggering levels of income.

Not all of the sites have struck gold on the black market – Atlantis Market, once touted as the heir to Silk Road, closed up shop and made off with its customers’ payments shortly after Silk Road’s first shutdown. But as online drug sale figures clearly show – according to the UNODC, seizures of marijuana sales delivered through the postal service have escalated 300% in the last decade – web sites will continue to use the darker areas of the Internet regardless of the potential danger. For law enforcement, this new environment nullifies much of the traditional methods of tracking down and arresting drug traffickers.

Key to the challenge in corralling the online black market is the method of payment – bitcoin – and the means of accessing dealers through the Tor network. The virtual currency is very difficult to trace, while the Tor network – short for The Onion Router Network – connects users and website owners through a two-fold means of security. Users who wish to conceal their online footprints log onto Tor and have their data dispersed throughout the Internet, concealing the origin of their search. Website owners use Tor’s “hidden services,” which open up a “dark net” that makes traffic untraceable, even to Google’s spiders. Also posing a problem for law enforcement: the geographic spread of dealers selling on sites. At the height of its power, Silk Road offered 13,000 listings that originated from 10 different countries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has admitted that no concrete data exists on the exact location of dealers selling on black market sites.

Online sellers and marketplaces aren’t completely untouchable – Ulbricht, who operated under the moniker “Dread Pirate Roberts,” led the FBI to his door by connecting the Silk Road service to a Virtual Private Network and not Tor, though some suggest that the agency used malware to hobble his servers. But the sites that followed Silk Road’s rise and fall are learning from its mistake, and improving their own levels of encryption to prevent such vulnerabilities from compromising their business. Though online drug sales are only a small part of the worldwide narcotics industry, the UNODC predicts that it may be the shape of things to come. “If the past trend continues,” it noted in its World Drug Report, “[online black markets] have the potential to become a popular mode of trafficking in controlled substances in years to come.”  

Paul Gaita is a Los Angeles-based writer. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Amazon and The Los Angeles Beat, among other publications and sites.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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