In brief

  • Coronavirus and social distancing are disrupting the drugs market.
  • Drug users are turning to the dark web.
  • Only supply issues, and the volatility of Bitcoin's price are creating problems there too.

“Do you know how to buy spliff on Tor?”

My pal Ben is not the only one asking where to buy drugs on the so-called dark web. On London’s empty streets, there are whispers about drug dealers shutting up shop, refusing to sell to anyone except their best customers; concerned about their next reload. Like above-board businesses, they’re wrestling with the logistics of self isolation, and the chaos wrought on supply chains by the coronavirus crisis. 

That’s why, according to addiction specialist Adam Winstock, many of the UK’s 3.2 million drug users are turning to either prescription meds or the dark net markets. Dark net markets use the encrypted Tor network to disguise the location of a site’s server, and offer a way to buy almost anything anonymously. The most popular products are illicit drugs, sent through the mail in exchange for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC).

Image of the Silk Road
The Silk Road was once used to buy drugs with Bitcoin. Image: Shutterstock.

Meanwhile, Bitcoin exchanges have seen an influx of new users since the coronavirus lockdown started—with some even tripling their usual rate of new signups. But, at the same time, data suggest that these newcomers aren’t trading or accumulating cryptocurrency; instead, they’re withdrawing funds. Could some be destined for dark web marketplaces selling everything from illegal drugs to the face masks and chloroquine that are in critically short supply in the pandemic? 

Buying drugs on the dark net means buying Bitcoin first

Winstock, an honorary clinical professor at University College London’s the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, is the founder of the Global Drugs Survey. The number of people in England obtaining drugs on the dark net has more than doubled in the past five years, according to his team’s research. 

“I think most people will be switching to the dark web because of the range of products, quality, vendor ratings, ease of purchase and not having to expose yourself to street level violence,” said Winstock.

Users pay for goods on dark web marketplaces in Bitcoin, or other cryptocurrencies like the privacy coin Monero. Over $800 million in cryptocurrencies was sent to dark net markets in 2019, according to data from blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis. 

It’s too early for reliable data on whether people are accessing the dark web for the first time because of issues with their regular suppliers, Winstock told Decrypt. But he’s confident their new data, published in May, will reveal a correlation.

seized drugs
Cannabis, LSD, MDMA and cocaine are the most common drugs sold through dark net markets. (Image: Wikipedia)

“If it hadn’t been of interest up to now, I’m certain that there will be a lot more people thinking, ‘Maybe this is the time to try’,” he said. 

It's also too early to identify a disruption in the regular supply of drugs in meatspace. Winstock said, front line dealers are responding by selling in bulk, asking opportunistic prices or reducing the purity of their product.  

He was particularly worried about the increasing availability of Fentanyl—heroin’s synthetic cousin—on the dark web. The drug is more concentrated, so easier to ship, but far more deadly, as dealers use it to bulk up other drugs.  

The dark web isn’t immune to supply issues

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fragility of supply chains in industries around the world—and illicit drugs are no exception. Already, there are reports of drug prices increasing on dark web marketplaces due to chemical shortages in China.

The raw chemical ingredients used for manufacturing methamphetamine and fentanyl are mainly sourced from China, the epicentre of the outbreak, and cartels in Mexico are running low.

Shortages of these so-called precursor chemicals, those mixed with other drugs, are limiting the range of drugs dealers are now able to offer. And the increased volatility of some cryptocurrencies is also impacting dealers. 

I only accept cryptocurrency and the prices are fluctuating so much that I’ve had to start rejecting orders for certain coins, mainly BTC,” one MDMA and psychedelics dealer told VICE.

Bitcoin sent from Chinese exchanges to dark net markets
The value of Bitcoin sent from Chinese exchanges to dark net markets is seeing an uptick. (source: Chainalysis)

As a result, blockchain analysis company Chainalysis reported earlier this week that the amount of Bitcoin being sent to the dark net has dropped significantly since the economic crisis kicked in on March 9. ‘“Disruptions to global supply chains could be hampering darknet market vendors’ ability to do business,” they concluded. However, as China recovers from Covid-19, its darknet market purchasing appears to be picking back up. 

Others also see these supply chain issues as a temporary blip. Italy’s mafia organizations are set to boost their profits from the country’s coronavirus pandemic, experts say, as mob bosses seize new business opportunities and adapt their drug networks.

Supply chain issues are also diversifying the type of products for sale on the dark web market. The COVID-19 pandemic is driving sellers to offer chloroquine and scarce N95 protective masks for sale.

As people increasingly seek to buy medicines such as paracetamol, face masks and hand gels, we should expect a rise in the number of fake sites claiming to have access to stocks of such products, reports independent think tank RUSI.

The dangers of the dark web

Like other illicit marketplaces, dark web markets are rife with risks. “While I’m sure it would be tempting for people to turn to the darknet markets and have their drugs delivered in the mail, inexperienced users are likely to fall victim to a scam,” said author Eileen Ormsby, one of the world's leading experts on the dark web. 

Among the dark web scams identified by Ormsby are phishing sites designed to replicate real market places, and “selective scams,” where genuine vendors target new accounts, blaming a disrupted postal service when supplies fail to materialize. 


Law enforcement continues to crack down on dark web providers, and some hackers and contraband traders are moving to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, which promise end-to-end encryption and include tools for forwarding messages to larger groups of people while remaining anonymous.

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