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Has COVID-19 boosted the online trade in illegal drugs?

A common feature of the COVID pandemic has been the digitization of so many of the activities that form a central part of our lives. Whereas traditionally we may have visited stores or theaters, for instance, the pandemic has meant we have conducted these activities increasingly online. Has the same been occurring for criminal activity too?

Data from the Global Drug Survey suggests that prior to the pandemic the online drug trade has been booming in recent years, with the proportion of illicit drugs bought online growing from 7% in 2014 to 14% in 2017. Much of this growth has been facilitated by the rise in cryptocurrencies and the dark web, which have enabled transactions to be done in the shadows and out of sight of law enforcement agencies. What’s more, these transactions have often been conducted in an anonymous and untraceable fashion.

The dark web has proved the ideal location for the drug trade to flourish as the very nature of such marketplaces overcomes many of the hurdles to drug transactions in the real world.

For instance, there is less of a risk of violence accompanying transactions, or of being sold impure substances. Indeed, research suggests that marketplaces in the dark web actually tend to be more honest and less prone to scams than trades conducted on the street. What's more, research has shown that people flock to them in large part because they feel safer.

Cracking down

Such platforms are not immune from the long arm of the law, however, and new research highlights the impact this can have on the sale of drugs. The research found that in the two weeks following the forced shutdown of various marketplaces on the dark web, the United States saw a 10% increase in illicit drug trade crimes linked to crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.

The researcher set out to understand just what happens when online marketplaces for illicit drugs go down, both in terms of the trade itself and also related issues, such as violent crime and property crime. The questions are answered via an analysis of crime data from across the United States alongside specific information regarding the shutdown of various dark-web marketplaces.

Crime data in the days before and after the shutdown of online marketplaces is compared to try and understand how drug trading might have continued if these marketplaces had remained open.

The analysis reveals a close connection between street-based drug trading and online-based drug trading.

Indeed, the two largely act as substitutes for one another, with trade moving to the streets when web-based marketplaces are shut down, and vice versa when the street is no longer an option.

Gaining trust

The key to this fluid movement between virtual and physical worlds is trust, as when new online marketplaces emerge it takes a little while for trust to be developed between buyers and sellers. This is often due to the crime that underpins the supply of drugs, with sellers often struggling to regain the trust of buyers after a dark-web marketplace has been shut down unexpectedly.

The transition between online marketplaces and physical trading didn’t appear to bring with it growth in the kind of street crimes that are usually associated with the drug trade, including theft, homicide, and prostitution. The researchers explain that these crimes are often linked to the drug trade because drug users are forced to commit crimes in order to fund their habit, whilst drug gangs use violence to protect their business.

The authors suggest that this finding is analogous to the labor market, as looking for new work can be an expensive endeavor, not least in the time it takes to scour through job listings, polish your resume, go to interviews, and so on. When you actually accept a job, you hope that it’s one you like, and indeed, such is the rigmarole associated with finding a job, you’re loathed to go through the job searching process again unless you have to. Buyers and sellers of illicit drugs go through the same kind of thought process.

When buyers and sellers make a successful and trusted pairing, this usually forms a long-lasting relationship.

When online marketplaces are shut, this forces an obvious breaking of this relationship and makes buyers and sellers try to forge new relationships via other avenues. Often this can be via the streets, but those who have good experiences of virtual platforms quickly return again once the opportunity presents itself, with many regarding trading online as significantly safer.

The results highlight just how hard it is to tackle the drug trade, especially via the supply-side policies that are so often the focus of law enforcement efforts. Both drug users and the criminals that supply them are quick to adapt as supply routes are shut down, and as soon as some are removed, new ones quickly re-emerge. This was clear during COVID-19 as street trading became risky, so online marketplaces became more popular than ever.

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