Prevalent dark web drug a ‘biohazard’

Researchers say a new report “lifts the lid” on a significant new synthetic opioid market on the dark net

A new study from the Australian National University has found that Australians have access to “mass amounts” of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil on the dark web.

The dark web comprises parts of the Internet which are not indexed by search engines, and which require specific software to access. While not everything on the dark web is illegal, a considerable amount of content allows access to illicit trade, including that of licit and illicit drugs.

“We are on the brink of a new opioid epidemic driven by synthetics like fentanyl and carfentanil that are driving a greater risk of overdose deaths,” said lead author Professor Roderic Broadhurst, from the ANU Cybercrime Observatory.

“Accessing these drugs is almost as easy as buying a book on Amazon. Australia is a good market, because Australians pay a premium for drugs.

“There are fewer sellers selling big amounts and many sellers selling small amounts and it is in such small amounts, it makes it easy to move.

“It is like ants moving houses and terrifically profitable.”

The researchers found millions of doses for sale online each day, with an average of 15-22 kilos of the potent drugs available on the dark web.

Prof Broadhurst said that the researchers found “millions of doses” of fentanyl and “billions” of doses of carfentanil – originally created as an elephant sedative and with no indication for human use in Australia – available each day.

They were shocked by the “alarming” amount of carfentanil available, he said.

Professor Roderic Broadhurst
Professor Roderic Broadhurst.

“Fentanyl dealers could do a Breaking Bad and make it in their own kitchen but carfentanil is so dangerous it is a biohazard.”

The ANU researchers collected data from the dark web for 51 days in January and February 2019 analysing six mainstream dark web markets.

More than 123,000 unique drug listings were online with nearly 7,400 opioids listed in six “Main Street” dark web markets.

“The structure of the global trade in narcotics is completely changing,” said Prof Broadhurst. 

“The bigger picture is the shift from plant based narcotics to factory produced synthetics, notably opioids, amphetamine type stimulants and new designer drugs.” 

According to Professor Broadhurst there are significant challenges for police when it comes to addressing this type of cybercrime.

“The quantities of potent drugs is scaled down. This, combined with the anonymous access offered to both distributors and recreations users, makes it very hard to detect and monitor.”

The report also found that:

  • Of more than 123,000 unique drug listings identified, nearly 7,400 were opioids. 
  • 439 of all drugs listed (0.347%) were fentanyl products.
  • Between 15 and 22 kilograms of fentanyl was available on any day and the average price per gram varied between $30 and $301. 
  • Over half the drugs available were listed on “main street” dark web market Wall Street.
  • Fentanyl-laced products were listed under colloquial names such as Apache, China White, Bear and TNT. 
  • These products were presented in five physical forms tablets, powder, solutions, and sprays. Patches and powder dominate.

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