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The rise of the Dark Web fuels illicit drug trade

POSTED: June 28, 2017 11:50 a.m.
Jesse Hyde/

A screenshot from Daily Mail that shows chemists making batches of mephedrone, a new incarnation of a 'plant food' that has been linked to deaths of British teens. Story at Dailymail.co.uk.

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When police dismantled Silk Road, the first Dark Web market to sell drugs, in 2013 prosecutors hoped the life sentence handed down against Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht would deter copycats.

But that didn’t happen. In a study for the British Journal of Criminology, Boston College sociologist Isak Ladegaard found that the sale of drugs on the Dark Web has only increased over the past four years. At the time of Ulbricht’s arrest, Silk Road had about 12,000 listings, for items that ranged from counterfeit documents to ecstasy and marijuana. Alphabay, the Dark Net market Aaron Shamo allegedly used to sell drugs, has well over 300,000 listings today, including more than 240,000 for drugs alone.

Trawling through forums on dark web markets, Ladegaard found users blamed Ulbricht for making mistakes that led to his arrest, rather than good police work.

It’s a popular misconception that the Dark Web and Bitcoins provide users complete anonymity, says Nick Weaver, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the Dark Web.

“The cops only have to be lucky once,” Weaver says. “All it takes is one screw up and so that makes it really hard for a dark market drug dealer in the long run. You might be good 99.9 percent of the time but it only takes one mess up.”

And yet, the rise of the Dark Web and the proliferation of labs in places like China that are willing to make just about any drug do present a daunting new problem for law enforcement.

“This is a revolutionary thing,” says Maia Szalavitz, author of a book on addiction called Unbroken Brain. “This is going to upend things in ways we can’t predict. In the old model you had cartels who had to grow poppies, process them into heroin, ship them across the border, have the corner boys out on the streets dealing. Now you’ve eliminated all that. You can just call a Chinese lab and they can make you a compound easily.”

And that’s exactly how it works. Rusty Payne at the Drug Enforcement Administration says there are hundreds of labs in China that are cooking up powerful synthetic drugs that are then sold over the Dark Web. Payne says the DEA has offices in Beijing and Shanghai and are working closely with the Chinese government to shut labs that illegally produce banned substances.

But as soon as one substance is banned, chemists at clandestine labs slightly tweak the molecular structure to produce something intended to deliver a similar high. That explains why police have begun to see the emergence of something called carfentanil, an analogue of fentanyl, that is reportedly 10,000 times more powerful. It has been blamed for the overdose deaths of a jaw dropping 78 people over one weekend in Cincinnati earlier this year.

“All these analogues that are coming out of China are 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin,” Payne says. “A small amount can be cut in to pills, and the profit margins are just through the roof. Drug use has just become a game of Russian Roulette, because we’ve got so many different designer drugs that are being manufactured by these rogue labs in China. And that’s why we’re seeing so much death.”

Payne says they’ve seen fentanyl seizures jump from 13,000 in 2015 to more than 36,000 last year. And yet, Payne says that probably represents a tiny fraction of what makes it in to the U.S. In Miami, customs officers are now checking every shipment that comes from China, says Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University that studies addiction and substance abuse.

“It’s infinitely impossible to stop shipments from coming in,” says Scott VanWagoner, a police officer assigned to narcotics in Salt Lake County, Utah. “We can not stem the tide of that; it’s virtually impossible. You’d have to track every shipment that came overseas.”
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