The 2016 World Drug Report stated that the deepweb is fueling an international drug trade. According to Stijn Hoorens and David Décary-Hétu, the claim is not reinforced by empirical evidence. RAND Europe and the Universities of Montreal and Manchester conducted a study that ultimately disproved the 2016 WDR’s claims.
Global law enforcement agencies routinely arrest succesful deepweb vendors, indicating there is no shortage of online drug transactions. Many arrested vendors were able to tap into revenue streams that would have been nonexistent if not for the deepweb. There is no disputing that international transactions are a commonplace on darknetmarkets. However, researchers believe that such drug trade has had no substantial impact on global drug markets.
Judith Aldridge from the University of Manchester, David Décary-Hetu from the University of Montreal, and Stijn Hoorens from RAND conducted a massive deepweb scrape. The scrape contained data from 50 marketplaces and independent shops with a focus on both vendor and buyer demographics. Similar to recent findings from Monica Barratt and Aldridge, the RAND scrape shows online drug trade tripling since 2013.
Hoorens and Décary-Hétu write “but how global is this trade?”
The researchers found that marketplaces are dominated by vendors from the US, the UK and Australia. Vendor location was determined by looking at merchandise listings that indicated where the product would be shipping from. US-based vendors have the highest market share of cryptomarket drugs (35.9 percent of total drug revenues). The UK (16.1 percent) and Australia (10.6) are next in line.
Emerging economies have the least vendors, the study indicates:
Cryptomarkets offer potential customer outlets for vendors who are closely located to source regions. Our data suggests, however, that very few vendors operate from emerging economies, such as Southern Asia (heroin), Latin America (cannabis, cocaine), northern Africa (cannabis resin), or China (synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances).
Deriving data about the buyer location is far more difficult. However, vendors often indicate locations they will ship to, giving researchers a starting point. The potential shipping routes were analyzed, revealing that North America and Oceania were the two most common destinations. Europe was the third most common.
The most common routes of darknet market drug trade were within North America, Europe, and Oceania. The researchers note that one-third of the transactions take unknown routes, so the data was difficult to estimate precisely. Regardless, this analysis indicates that majority of drugs bought online are shipped domestically or intra-continentally. Respectively few drugs traveled between continents.
The publication points out the discrepancy between their findings and the current beliefs:
This finding is interesting because it challenges the convention that cryptomarkets facilitate the globalization of drug retail markets. Countries such as Australia and the US have implemented strict monitoring of internationally shipped parcels, which explains the reluctance of vendors to ship across international borders. Contrast that to the limited or lack of monitoring of domestically shipped postal packages. With American buyers able to source cannabis, for example, from Colorado and Washington, where the drug has been legalized, why risk purchase from abroad?
An anomaly manifests itself when examining the Netherlands in light of domestic drug sales vs. international ones. Local law enforcement provided the researchers with intelligence suggesting that domestic sales from Dutch vendors are of little importance. However, the Netherlands has dominated global sales of MDMA with twenty-three percent of overall revenue. “The 225 vendors operating from the Netherlands generated $1.1 million in drug revenues per month and ranked fifth, after the US, UK, Australia, and Germany,” Hoorens Décary-Hétu wrote.
Looking at the Netherlands example, one can see that online international drug trade is only occurring with specific drugs. In this case, the Netherlands is the MDMA center of the world. In some countries, MDMA costs tenfold domestically what it would cost if ordered internationally from the Netherlands. The conclusion here is that international sales theoretically only take place for substances that justify the risk associated with international travel.
The researchers conclude that the full impact the darknet has on international drug trade is still somewhat inconclusive. However, aside from the Netherlands, the majority of the drug trade takes place within domestic borders. Darknet transactions have massively increased in number since 2013, but their impact on international drug trade is not yet of major significance.