While law enforcement is virtually powerless to shut down the darknet drug trade, new research suggests that law enforcement may be able to disrupt it to a certain extent and discourage new buyers from making purchases by leaving fake negative reviews. The researchers studied the sale of opioids on Crypto Market during a six month period which covered between October of 2015 through April of 2016. Opioid sales made up the second largest category of drugs sold on Crypto Market, with the largest category being marijuana sales.
The paper was written by sociology researchers at the Ohio State University including lead author Scott Duxbury, who is a doctoral student, and Dana Haynie, a professor of sociology. In August, Duxbury and Haynie presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The two researchers also published their paper in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. Their research involved nearly 60 opioid vendors and just over 700 users who purchased from those vendors. Most of the people who purchased opioids from the vendors that were studied only purchased products once. The researchers are not certain why most buyers only made a single purchase, however, they speculated that many buyers may have just been experimenting.
The listings that were studied were for heroin or prescription opioid drugs, and it doesn’t appear they included research chemical opioids such as fentanyl analogs and U47700. Over 60% of the sales that were studied occurred in the United States, nearly 10% occurred in Canada, and the rest occurred in various European countries such as France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Thirteen of the vendors that were included in the study had drugs listed for sale but who did not receive any orders during the six month period that was monitored.
The researchers concluded that the best way to disrupt online drug sales is to focus on prevention efforts when markets and vendors are just beginning operations. It is much harder for law enforcement to disrupt markets and vendors once they have already been established and have a trusted reputation. For law enforcement the best time to try and disrupt a market is, “while a market is first emerging, it may be easier to target vendors as they register, preventing them from establishing trust in the first place and undermining the market itself,” the researchers concluded. “Thus, the most effective way to curb Tor network drug trafficking may be to simply target emerging vendors’ reputation. For example, law enforcement may be able to make a few small transactions with emerging vendors and give negative evaluations. This may prevent the vendor from establishing a clientele base and free up more intensive law enforcement efforts to focus on the high-profile vendors in prolific markets,” the researchers stated in their paper. This conclusion is in line with the findings of research into disrupting traditional offline drug markets, which also found that disruption is easiest to create during the early stages of a drug market forming.
While law enforcement may be successful in preventing new people from purchasing from vendors, it is unlikely to stop the most dedicated buyers from continuing to make purchases, as they already have established a relationship and trust with the vendor. This core group of repeat darknet market buyers and sellers are much less likely to be disrupted by law enforcement than they would be offline.The researchers believe that negative reviews would prevent a darknet market from growing. During the six months that Crypto Market was studied, the researchers found that only 18% of buyers made more than a single purchase. Once a buyer had found a vendor which they trusted, only 30% would continue to shop around. The researchers concluded that prices aren’t an important factor when users make their first purchase, and that finding a trusted vendor was much more important to buyers. Unlike offline drug dealing, there aren’t a few key players who can be taken out. On the darknet markets, there are a large number of vendors who will take the place of any key vendors which get taken out by law enforcement.