The growth of advanced technology has gone hand in hand with the advancement of organized drug networks.
Throughout history, drug syndicates have always relied on physical addresses to conduct business across numerous jurisdictions.
The fact that these organizations relied on the already-existing geographical and legal boundaries meant that they were particularly exposed to a host of limitations.
Low-level drug traders were categorized according to individual suburban establishments or cities that provided their needed demands—the tangibility of persons, spaces and areas was a key characteristic of such drug syndicates.
Today, new internet developments have given rise to the establishment of e-commerce websites that have converted traditional “brick-and-mortar” models to a vast virtual playing field for the modern drug dealer.
This achievement has advanced the sophistication of drug networks to assume a significant global reach.
It is obvious that the internet provides timeless opportunities to drug vendors and the associated industries.
Virtual drug markets have also simplified the process of buying banned substances by practically eliminating the need for face-to-face encounters between buyers and sellers.
The physical safety and overall anonymity provided by online marketplaces is markedly different from what traditional drug value chains looked like.
Key Drivers: Social Media vs. Darknet
The subject of new internet capabilities in the proliferation of drug markets can be linked directly to social media and the dark web.
As you already know, social media denotes the tech frameworks that support the sharing of passive media across different sectors.
They enable users to create and tailor web content to suit specific needs and applications—using a somewhat collaborative approach to browse the surface web.
The dark web, on the other hand, operates in the online underworld—combining sets of technologies and techniques to boost user security and anonymity.
Darknet platforms have been favorable to tech-savvy consumers that wish to carry out activities without law enforcement interference.
Having introduced the above concepts, the remainder of this analysis will shed light on ways in which social media and the dark web have modified the entire global drug enterprise to become the complex sector that it is today.
Drug Trade on the Dark Web
As mentioned above, the role of dark web platforms in the drug trade is their anonymity and safety features.
Dark web markets are hosted on referral URLs, which can only be visited through special .onion domains.
The uniqueness of dark web drug markets is also presented by the payment systems that these websites support.
Until today, cryptocurrencies are the primary currency options within darknet markets.
Bitcoin, for example, spearheaded the development of the 2011 Silk Road to become the ultimate marketplace for drugs.
While cryptocurrencies have greatly changed the way modern drug networks do business, we still ask How effective is the cryptocurrency model in supporting darknet drug markets?
Well, the crypto mechanism presents a paradox as far as the existence of successful drug transactions continue to rule over online marketplaces.
The associated data involved in blockchain technology is expected to establish a traceable forensic trail that would expose a subject’s financial history.
Because of this, darknet criminals have devised methods to counter the weakness—by applying cryptocurrency mixing tools to cover their tracks.
This procedure entails the achievement of transactional anonymity by shifting Bitcoin stashes from one user to another.
At this point, the forensic trail would expose conversions from fiat currencies to crypto coins, but this ends here—it becomes practically impossible to link specific crypto stashes to specific persons.
Why Drug Markets Employ Darknet Sites
The first reason is Favorable Prices. The presence of drug users in geographically isolated locations in the world have found the darknet to be an important solution to their drug procurement challenges.
It would not be surprising to find recreational drugs, like LSD, costing less than the normal price when ordered online (vis-à-vis through physical access points).
Second, value for money. Drug users have derived value for their money when purchasing goods via online marketplaces.
The user feedback allowance has enabled repeat customers to control quality trends by recommending vendors with good reputation as far as the quality of their products is concerned.
Third, safety. The lack of violent encounters between buyers and sellers is also another attribute that has drawn consumers and sellers to the online model of drug trading.
Traditional drug deals were also accompanied by the possibility of violence and even deaths whenever drug masterminds and customers clashed for one reason or the other.
The online model that upholds user anonymity has prevented untold violent resolution to disputes, especially when female users are involved.
Drug Trade on Social Media
Ideally, the role of social media in the subject of global drug markets can be studied through the lens of economic principles.
The first consideration informs us that social media’s direct impact is seen through its effect on drug supply—such platforms create opportunities for people to trade and procure drugs.
Second, the presence of drug-related themes in social media goes a long way to influence the overall demand for drugs by potential consumers.
When people use social media to share reviews on their drug experiences or use its platforms to spread drug-positive content, an indirect impact is seen regarding public opinion along the lines of drug abuse.
Drug Supply and Demand
The direct influence of social media on drug trade is illuminated by the advertisement of drugs for sale online.
Otherwise, drug dealers’ activity on social media is usually associated with the sharing of photo and video content regarding certain substances.
A host of illicit drug markets have engaged social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in a battle for control.
While most of these platforms have tried, albeit in vain, to close down drug-related accounts to ease pressure from U.S. Congress, the drug markets continue to generate hashtags to lure and maintain their user networks.
To understand the power of social media in the modern drug trade, drugabuse.com did a study on Instagram to expose hashtags related to drug mentions and sales.
The researchers made interesting findings that classified substances that ruled music festivals in 2015. A significant number of drug dealer accounts were found to be sharing drugs-for-sale posts.
Also, apart from the fact a majority of festival-goers were found to consume drugs, the popularity of specific drugs at such events gave an intriguing twist to the study results (as shown above).
At this point, social media platforms have acknowledged the challenge of regulating the flow of content within their corridors as far as the drug trade is concerned.
Instagram, for example, has taken a step in blocking a number of hashtags featured in drug mentions—including #cocaine and #fentanyl—from their searches.
Additionally, this popular photo and video sharing platform has linked such searches to helpline suggestions to try and eliminate the presence of drug-related discussions on social media.
The Big Question: Which Is the Most Preferred Platform for Drug Sales?
While comparing social media and darknet platforms in the ecosystem of drug markets, the dark web appears to be the most preferred vehicle accessible to drug buyers and sellers.
Believe it or not, the modern drug markets are shifting their reliance on dark web markets to utilizing the simplicity and efficiency of social media sites to sustain their activities.
Most drug users find dark web browsing and its associated cryptocurrency application to be a complicated process.
Otherwise, an important reason behind this resolve is the reaction of drug dealers and users to the aggressive crackdown on darknet sites across continental jurisdictions.
To conclude, social media apps have made it easy for users to purchase drugs while avoiding the potential risks of using darknet platforms and traditional systems.
Online apps enable buyers to have a feel of desired products before the purchase is made—they can view photos and images or stream live sessions to virtually sample the products that they are about to buy.