Rand Corporation Says: Dark Web Drug Deals Tripled in 3 Years

The U.S. is the most active country in the digital drug trade.

A recent Rand Corporation study of drug sales over the underground internet paints dark web narcotics transactions as a niche but emerging market. Transactions have tripled since 2013, despite a landscape of almost nonexistent trust between buyer, seller, vendor, and marketplace platforms. The mistrust is a natural result of a series of law-enforcement stings, bitcoin exit scams, and shuttering of sites that began with the takedown of the Silk Road. The Rand Corp. study, which was commissioned by the Netherlands in an effort to gauge the country's role in the online drug world, and how to better police it, concluded:

"Today, there are around 50 so-called cryptomarkets and vendor shops where anonymous sellers and buyers find each other to trade illegal drugs, new psychoactive substances, prescription drugs and other goods and services. But it is not just the obscure parts of the Internet. . . There are numerous web shops, easily found by search engines, which offer new psychoactive substances, often labelled as 'research chemicals.' "

—The United States claims the biggest drug market share, with the largest number of buyers and vendors, representing 35.9 percent of total dark-web drug transactions. Participants from the Netherlands made up a much narrower slice, with 7.1 percent of the pie, though Dutch users generated the highest revenue per capita. 

—Weed is the top-selling drug, accounting for 37 percent of sales. Stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines, at 29 percent, come in second. Heroin ranked among the least popularly traded substances, making up only 7 percent of dark web drug trade. 

—The majority of drugs sold on the studied cryptomarkets were transactions under $100, which researchers believe were mostly for personal use. These purchases generated 18 percent of total transactions, while 25 percent of transaction were greater than  $1,000, and thought to be for re-distribution through offline markets. 

—Total dark web drug revenues for January 2016 were estimated by researchers to land between $12.0 million and $21.1 million––a drop in the bucket to Europe's estimated 2.3 billion monthly offline drug revenues.

Netherlands-based vendors claim only 2 percent of global revenue sales of cannabis, but 23 percent of MDMA and ecstasy revenues.