Drugs and the Darknet

Europol, the law enforcement agency for the European Union, and EMCDDA, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, recently released a joint report titled ‘Drugs and the Darknet’. This report explores the proliferation of advanced technologies which have allowed illicit drugs to become much more accessible online, as well as allowing organised crime groups (OCGs) to expand their reach and not be restricted to specific geographical territories. It is estimated that about two-thirds of the darknet offerings are drug related.


Darknet markets

The ‘darknet’ is a part of the ‘deep web’ where content isn’t accessible through traditional search engines such as Google, and where access is anonymous and largely untraceable. The darknet functions as an ‘online black market’ to facilitate the trading in illicit goods and services.

The first darknet market of notoriety was Silk Road, which opened in 2011 and was seized by the FBI in 2013. Since that time there has been a proliferation of darknet markets, with an estimate of over 100 markets having emerged to date.


How is the darknet accessed?

The darknet can be accessed in a number of ways including links from regular surface websites to hidden darknet sites, as well as ‘invitation-only’ markets where users need to be referred by a current user.

Users are able to access the darknet with relative anonymity by using browsers such as Tor (The Onion Router).  Tor is free software that enables online anonymity using a process known as onion routing, which encrypts data and transmits them through a series of network nodes.


What drugs are offered on the darknet?

Once the darknet has been accessed using Tor software, the user can browse the items on offer in a similar fashion to regular e-commerce sites such as ebay.

Drugs are listed as a product category alongside other categories of illicit items such as weapons and counterfeit items. Each marketplace has its own system of listing the drugs on offer, but typically they are listed by category of drug, such as stimulants or opioids.


What technologies allow illicit drugs to be sold on the darknet?


Anonymisation services

Anonymisation services such as Tor allow users to browse the web without revealing their identity or location. While anonymisation services have become increasingly used to conduct criminal activity, this was not their original purpose and there are many legitimate reasons for which individuals may wish to protect their anonymity online.


Encrypted communication

Encryption converts ordinary data such as text messages into a form that cannot be identified or read by another person or program, other than the intended receiver, who uses an electronic ‘key’ to descrypt the message. Offenders trading in drugs and other illicit goods or services on the darknet use encrypted communications to avoid identification by law enforcement agencies.



Darknet marketplaces utilise crypto-currencies such as bitcoin to facilitate transactions, making it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace a transaction to a specific individual.


Motives for buying and selling online


Perceived quality of drugs purchased online

The consumer’s perceived ‘quality’ of drugs purchased on the darknet is higher than those available through street markets. Customers are also able to buy from vendors located in the countries where the drug production takes place, for example purchasing MDMA from the Netherlands


Avoiding violence and other risks

It has been suggested that darknet markets might be attractive to buyers as they are perceived to be safer environments in which to buy drugs, as opposed to dealing face-to-face with potentially dangerous drug dealers.



Technological advancements have allowed both lone offenders and organised crime groups to trade in illicit drugs via the darknet, with a level of anonymity that makes this type of crime very difficult for law enforcement to combat.

A clear recommendation from the findings of the report is the need for increased investment to support specialist investigation capacities to address current skills gaps for conducting investigations on the darknet, with many authorities lacking experts who have both a technical understanding of cybercrime investigation and practical expertise in combating drug-related crime.



Nyman Gibson Miralis provides expert advice and representation in complex international cybercrime investigations. Our expertise includes dealing with malware, phishing and computer hacking offences, bootlegging and tripping, Bitcoin and crypto-currency fraud, as well as offences relating to identity theft, spreading computer viruses and DDoS attacks.

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