In an article for Vice, Gavin Butler reported that 15% of 2020 Global Drug Survey participants used darknet marketplaces to buy drugs. “Over the past seven years that number has steadily climbed, but never as significantly as it did in 2020: jumping by four percent of the total respondents compared to 2019 levels,” he explains. Jobs, graduations, and grocery shopping moved online last year. Why wouldn’t drug deals, too?
I wanted to hear from darknet users themselves, so I started scouring subreddits of the like. Because of the platform’s rigorous moderation and previous bans of major darknet forums, there were not enough active subreddits and not enough people willing to talk and risk their identities. So, I did what you do; I made an account on the darknet version of Reddit, Dread. I DMed the most active and recent members of drug subdreads with a link to an anonymous survey. Five out of six respondents stated that they were 18 to 21 years old, and all six stated that they had used an in-person drug dealer prior to utilizing the darknet.
“I preferred buying online much more. Took a little bit of time to get started and use proper security, though. I know people who have searched for years for a certain drug I got online and couldn’t find it using street dealers, so online definitely opens up a lot more possibilities,” one user wrote on the way their experiences between purchasing online and in person differ.
“I can read hundreds of reviews on each product and vendor,” another user shared, adding that they discovered darknet drug markets via a subreddit post about “how to get drugs to fuel eating disorders.”
Another user explained they turned to the darknet to find more rare drugs, specifically DMT––or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine––a hallucinogenic that gives a two- to three-minute peak high mimicking a “near-death experience.”
One user responded that “news coverage [of] Silk Road and a friend who frequented the markets” helped them discover darknet markets. The Silk Road they’re referring to is the major darknet market circa 2011, which was busted by the FBI in 2013. Andy Greenberg wrote for Forbes that at the time of his arrest, 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht was kingpinning the $1.2 billion marketplace from a San Francisco Public Library.
For people like Skeletor, a respondent who told me he’s between 30 and 45 years old, Silk Road and the darknet posed a major threat to street dealers and customers in the early 2010s. “I used to be one of the main MDMA and ecstasy distributors of my county at the time of the infamous Gawker post that caught the attention of people around the world, throwing Chuck Schumer into a toddler tantrum,” Skeletor said. “Shortly thereafter, I had a customer that called me telling me she didn’t need me anymore thanks to Silk Road. As you could imagine I was super excited about this recent little life hack, but bummed at the same time because my little side gig was pretty much over… I never would have had the balls to [deal] online.”
In May of 2020, however, he decided to adapt to the circumstances and begin purchasing his drugs off the darknet. “I was always freaked out to really use the market, plus had no idea about crypto,” he admitted. Darknet markets only accept cryptocurrency for purchases. “However, because of the pandemic, the supply chain in my area was severely disrupted. I had no other choice. It seemed like the safest and best thing to do.”
With all precautionary measures undertaken, the digital black market is fairly accessible to anyone with a laptop, an internet connection, and the patience to figure out what an onion site is. According to my survey’s younger respondents, “better prices, mostly,” as well as the wider range of selections will keep them coming back. The only cons they see in the experience are having to wait for their orders to arrive, as well as it being “more difficult online at first.” To enter darknet markets, users must learn how to use encrypted browsing software; to purchase, they must learn how to use multisignature digital wallets like Bitcoin or Monero and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) keys. Darknet drug market buyers find that they feel more secure buying off the internet, despite the risk of leaving a digital footprint. “[The darknet] is essentially Amazon compared to [street dealing]. Amazon has thousands of customer reviews where you can judge if the product is of a certain quality. Bringing that to the drug market means holding dealers accountable for their product,” a young user wrote. “Online is safer by miles.”
“All you gotta do is click and it’ll be at your door within a couple days,” Skeletor says. “You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home. It’s the future and the next level of drug consumption on a titanic scale. And only the chosen few know how to successfully do it.”
By Angelica Crisostomo
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun