12 Mar 2021

Drug trafficking / With drugs available online, why bother with dealers on the street?

Advances in technology, including in Africa, give the drug trade the secrecy it needs to become borderless, and more lucrative.

Technological advances have made it easier than ever before to obtain illicit drugs online. At the click of a button, one can order any drug and have it delivered to one’s doorstep. Globally law enforcement sees this as a major obstacle in addressing the illicit drug market in Europe, North America, Australasia, and to a lesser extent, Africa.

In its Plan of Action on Drug Control and Crime Prevention 2019-2023, the African Union notes online drug sales as a growing problem in curbing the illegal drug trade in Africa. The plan includes targeting online drug markets under its crime prevention and criminal justice reform objective.

To appreciate the challenge the online drug market poses, it’s important to understand what it entails. To begin with it is necessary to differentiate between the drug markets on the dark web and the clear web. The clear or surface web is the part of the internet that is publicly accessible. The dark web can be accessed only with specific software such as The Onion Router (TOR) and virtual private networks (VPNs).

The dark web refers to the part of the internet that search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bling haven’t indexed. To access the dark web, users often download TOR, enabling them to browse anonymously and bypass censorship by hiding the internet protocol (IP) address of site visitors and the physical location of website publishers.

Technological advances have made it easier than ever before to obtain illicit drugs online

The dark web is where organised criminals take their business online. Here a simple search reveals online retailers selling guns, hitman-for-hire services, DIY hacking services, fake identity documents, counterfeit documents and fake money, among others.

But it’s the illicit trade in drugs that remains one of the most successful markets on the dark web. The first major illicit online drug marketplace, Silk Road, was launched in 2011. At the time of its closure by United States (US) law enforcement in 2013, the site had generated around $15 million in transactions yearly. Since then, several other drug marketplaces have replaced it, including Dream Market, White House Market, Cannazon and Dark Fox Market.

As with Silkroad, these markets provide anonymity to vendors and buyers through the use of cryptocurrencies to process the transactions. The types of drugs available include cannabis, ecstasy (MDMA), cocaine, heroin, opioids and new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.

Studies indicate that buyers are predominantly from the US, United Kingdom and Australia. However Africa is increasingly a target for sellers. With the low risk, high profits and anonymity provided by these websites, such a market for illicit drugs has the potential to grow in Africa in tandem with the uptake of technology among the continent’s youth.

Focusing on the users will have no effect on the greater organised criminals’ schemes

Although the dark web provides the secrecy needed to trade in illicit drugs, some bold illicit drug vendors ply their trade on the clear web, advertising their products through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Primary research on the clear web showed that cannabis was the most common type of drug available on the platform. Some traditional substances, such as heroin, MDMA and cocaine, proved slightly harder to find. Synthetic drugs such as NPS are more accessible.

A similar search on Facebook in October 2020 revealed a company profile for Research Chemicals. After contacting the company through the messenger chat feature, I received a comprehensive catalogue of their products together with their website address in the form of an Excel file. I asked whether they deliver to Africa:

Researcher: Do you do international delivery?

Research Chemicals (RC): Hi, thanks for contacting us. We’ve received your message and appreciate you reaching out. Yes we do deliver to Africa where you at? And which product do you want to order?

Researcher: Great. Looking at the 5F-APINACA [a type of synthetic cannabinoid].

RC: Ok good! But we’re currently accepting payment through bitcoins so once you’ve placed your order contact sales personnel on WhatsApp’s for order and shipping details.

Me: With the COVID-19 restrictions how long will shipping take?

RC: It’s gonna take a maximum of 6 days, you’ll get a tracking number on your order so you’ll know your package is on transit and it’s delivery date. How soon should we expect your order?

Researcher: Great! Will be in touch!

Several key aspects arise from this conversation. Firstly, one had to be conversant in the chemical name of the product but, once directed to their website, a description of the chemical is provided, such as the type, molecular mass, formula and IUPAC name. Secondly, payment in the form of Bitcoin indicates the caution used by vendors. Its anonymity and lack of regulation make Bitcoin the perfect form of transaction for organised criminals.

The company and its Facebook profile have since been closed. However, given the growing demand for illicit drugs, it’s unlikely that shutting down these drug vendors’ websites both on the clear and dark web would deter users from buying online as new websites pop up in days.

Organised criminals care little for the safety of their ‘customers’ when given the opportunity to make a profit

Some experts also argue that online drug markets are safer than getting drugs on streets. There’s both a lack of violence in online trade and the ‘customer ratings’ of retailers result in greater purity of drugs as compared to the street corner. There have even been instances where users received information on harm-reduction practices and dosage.

However the dangers associated with certain drugs, such as NPS, cannot be underestimated. Organised criminals care little for the safety of their ‘customers’ when given the opportunity to make a profit.

With the growth of information technology in Africa and greater accessibility to the internet, it’s only a matter of time before states start to see more activity on these online drug sites from Africa. As indicated above, while it might reduce the violence associated with the drug trade in some countries, organised criminals could exploit this opportunity for their own benefit.

As with all organised crime, focusing on the users will have no effect on the greater organised criminals’ schemes.  To disrupt and stay ahead of the online traders, law enforcement must boost their cybercrime investigative capacity and target the vendors on the sites and their suppliers. This requires new skills for national and regional criminal justice actors and a shift in focus from street corners to chat rooms.

Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT


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