The “dark web”—a shadowy virtual department store for unsavory products from assassination contracts to AK-47s to blood diamonds—is also apparently the outlet for sizeable flows of fentanyl, one of the chemical culprits of the opioid crisis.
Australian criminologists recently trawled the dark web’s anonymous markets for signs of fentanyl and its several known knockoffs—and without anticlimax. They discovered a significant—if small—niche for the fentanyl market among the products caught in their dragnet.
After monitoring six global darknet markets over a four-month period earlier this year, they found that drug traffickers offered between 15 and 22 kilograms of fentanyl products to consumers daily. While many drugs are packaged in grams or larger quantities, they found that fentanyl is largely trafficked in milligrams or micrograms in patch or powder form.
Published by the Australian Institute of Criminology, their study argues that fentanyl has likely trickled into illicit darknet drug markets because it is more potent than morphine and can be shipped in exceedingly small quantities that are easily hidden in seemingly benign packaging.
They estimate that fentanyl, an opioid pain suppressant, is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, in part by delivering a stronger punch in smaller doses.
But illicit drug manufacturers have continued ratcheting up the intensity of available opioids by creating spinoff drugs known as analogs.
Analogs are designed to mimic or intensify the effects of the parent drug while avoiding the legal classifications and restrictions that those markings impose on the original.
Carfentanil is the strongest and most lethal known analog for fentanyl, roughly 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.
It is also the second-most trafficked fentanyl-style opioid in the six markets that the researchers observed, accounting for 36 percent of such offerings. Fentanyl itself, on the other hand, accounted for 40 percent.
Only two percent of all vendors identified over the span of their observation trafficked fentanyl. Of the 102 unique fentanyl vendors, 58 offered global shipping. The remainder did not specify shipping options.
And while most fentanyl vendors appeared to be generalists, trafficking in many kinds of drugs simultaneously, several appeared to specialize in trafficking high volumes of fentanyl and carfentanil.
That said, heroin, oxycodone, and tramadol all outpaced fentanyl in market share of all opioids over the same time span, with 40, 23, and 12 percent respectively. Fentanyl products accounted for 7 percent of market traffic.
The researchers collected their data by setting automated programs to record the written content of postings across the six networks. This technique is called scraping.
And given that this corner of the web runs through anonymous servers and its unsavory travelers trade in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, the researchers’ findings are more a window into the obscure drug flows of the internet underworld than a trail of crumbs leading to any traffickers.
Their study can be downloaded (far from the darknet) here.
Roman Gressier is a contributing writer to The Crime Report.