This week, the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) released a report prepared by LegitScript on the state of opioids sales on the dark web. This months-long survey looked at the way in which drugs, in particular opioids, are sold on the dark web and to what extent this secretive portion of the internet is contributing to the nation's opioid epidemic.
We reviewed 12 top dark web marketplaces, which are third-party platforms that operate similar to eBay or Amazon. Our survey counted more than 100,000 drug listings, including 8,164 listings for opioids, 6,428 for other prescription drugs, and 7,576 for psychedelics and designer drugs. Top shipping countries (as reported by the vendors) included the US, Canada, the UK, and other countries in the European Union. Top dark web drug vendors have completed thousands of successful transactions, though data doesn't show the volume of product in each transaction or the kind of product sold (for vendors selling multiple products). And, unless the vendor stated it explicitly, we were unable to identify where these drugs are sourced, although federal research indicates synthetic opioids such a fentanyl often originate from China, entering the US directly or through Mexico.
The nature of the dark web makes it difficult to collect reliable and comprehensive data. What we do know is that the opioid problem hasn't primarily been driven by the internet. Surveys conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) tracking the supply of misused pain relievers have consistently reported less than 1 percent coming from the internet (whether dark or surface). Of this portion that comes from the internet, we simply don't know whether more is coming from the surface web or the dark web.
What we do think, and what the CSIP report seems to confirm, is that dark web usage appears to be narrow - we estimate that the dark web's current largest marketplace, Dream Market, has facilitated hundreds of thousands of transactions over the past few years, which is only a fraction of the more than 11 million Americans who misused prescription pain relievers in 2016 alone, according to SAMHSA's most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. But, how many of these are bulk transactions, with the recipient dealing opioids downstream (as opposed to merely purchasing opioids for their own individual use)? Presumably some, but we don't know.
Although the dark web is a serious problem, it is only one of many avenues through which opioid abusers appear to access drugs illicitly. Our research indicates that the surface web likely has a higher percentage of vendors who engage in nondelivery schemes - that is, sellers who receive payment for products they never send. However, this number is not zero, as evidenced by arrests that continue to be made by the DEA and Department of Justice, including, for example, the recent arrests of two Chicago residents charged with selling fentanyl or fentanyl precursors on the open web. But is it a bigger problem - or, a smaller problem - than the dark web? Again, the answer is simply: nobody knows for sure.
If there is any conclusion to our dark web opioids report, it's that we need more research into the sale of illicit drugs on the internet - both surface web and dark web - so that we can collect better and more comprehensive data. Continued collaboration between government, advocacy groups, and the private industry is the best hope for collecting the information we need to fully understand this problem and form viable solutions.