Despite High-Profile Crackdowns, Dark Web Drug Markets Still Thriving

By McCarton Ackerman 08/17/15

Dark Web sellers have become more effective at avoiding scrutiny.

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Despite numerous crackdowns on the Dark Web, and the high-profile case of Silk Road’s founder getting a life sentence earlier this year, sales for these online drug portals are continuing to produce huge numbers.

A new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University analyzed Dark Web black market drug sales and found that they’re still continuing to sell between $100-180 million per year in total sales volume. Although the sales haven’t continued to increase, co-researcher Nicolas Christin noted that, “The market is relatively stable, with sales between 300,000 and 500,000 dollars a day. It’s not huge, but it’s not negligible, and it’s a lot bigger than we had reported in 2012.”

Business has continued to remain stable despite federal operations shutting down entire Dark Web markets or platforms. Even when the Silk Road 2 market lost millions of dollars of users’ bitcoins due to an alleged theft, annual sales on the Dark Web have yet to creep below the $100 million mark.

“What we’ve seen is that, as a whole, the ecosystem is resilient to these adverse events,” said Christin. “That shows it’s going to be a lot harder to get rid of these marketplaces than one would have thought.”

However, Dark Web sellers have addressed this problem by starting to adopt more encryption tools. Almost all of them now communicate with the crypto software PGP, while 90% of sellers on Dark Web markets Evolution and Agora posted a PGP key on their sales pages to allow buyers to send them encrypted messages.

The findings also show that only a small percentage of dealers are responsible for the vast amount of sales. Only 2% of Dark Web dealers sold over $100,000 worth of their products, while 70% sold less than $1,000 worth of drug merchandise.

Marijuana and MDMA account for nearly half of the total sales volume in Dark Web markets, while opioids like heroin account for less than 10% of these market sales. Prescription drugs like Viagra and OxyContin have also continued to rise in popularity.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.