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Class of 2017: The students turning to the Dark Web for their drug fix

With cheaper deals available to buy in bulk at an anonymous distance, the Dark Net is playing an increasingly major role in illegal drug sales. Now, the digital drug revolution is sweeping across UK campuses - Alec Fullerton speaks to some of the students involved

Alec Fullerton
Tuesday 14 February 2017 14:16 GMT
The UK’s online drugs market accounted for 16 per cent of global dark web dealing examined by researchers
The UK’s online drugs market accounted for 16 per cent of global dark web dealing examined by researchers

All it took was five minutes, one quick download, an encrypted URL off Reddit and I had accessed the famous 'Ebay for drugs' – hidden deep in the recesses of the dark net.

Within moments I was plunged into a veritable cornucopia of contraband; every type of drug under the sun was just a click away, along with enough guns, explosives and weapons to make even Bruce Willis shudder. And I could even get a 'McLovin' Hawaiian driving license delivered straight to my door, probably.

Put simply, the Dark Web allows users to remain almost completely anonymous as their IP addresses are hidden and any transactions are made using the crypto currency, Bitcoins, which is, again, pretty much untraceable. Buying and selling drugs is just one of the many activities that takes place here.

Despite Silk Road's high profile FBI bust in 2013, business is booming on the Dark Web. According to the Global Drug Survey's 2016 report, Dark Web drug markets are continuing to grow as they enter their sixth year of trading.

In a special section of their report, 'The dark net rising', researchers found that globally 9.3 per cent of participants had bought drugs off the internet at some point in their life, while the percentage of Dark Web purchases taking place in the last year rose from 4.5 to 6.7 per cent.

Another 2016 report, carried out by RAND and commissioned by the Dutch government, revealed that the UK now has the highest number of online drug dealers in Europe.

It is clear that the rising popularity of the Dark Web is changing the way young people are taking drugs in this country. Far from picking up a bag of dubious-looking weed off some tracksuit-clad youth on a BMX or swapping a grubby, scrunched up tenner for a little pill shaped like Pikachu, ordering drugs off the Internet requires a fair deal more thought and planning.

Alphabay Market operates as an "Ebay for drugs"

Dave*, a student at the University of Lincoln, discloses how he first found out about the Dark Web drug markets: “I heard about it off a mate who'd ordered stuff before,” he tells me. “It's not really the sort of thing I would have normally done, but I knew he seems like a fairly sensible bloke; he's not completely off the rails, you know? So I was like, he does it and he's fine, so it can't be that risky.”

To an outsider, all the technical jargon associated with the Dark Web could discourage them from even trying to access it, let alone actually buying anything off it. However, due to improved storefronts and the plethora of guides on online forums, you'd be surprised at just how easy it has become.

Dave adds: “At first it was sort of difficult as I wasn't sure how many precautions you had to take and I got really frustrated.

"Some people advise you online to 'tumble' your Bitcoins, use VPNs or even tails (a different Operating System), but it turns out if you're ordering for personal amounts it really doesn’t matter. I learnt about it all from Reddit.”

For most people, the physical delivery of the substance is probably seen as the biggest risk. However, as seemingly more people have started doing drugs, and getting away with it, it's starting to appear less of risk to nervous potential buyers.

This is something that Simon, a student at the University of Nottingham and relatively experienced Dark Web user, agrees with.

“They usually take quite a lot of steps to hide what's in there as well as making it look inconspicuous from the outside,” he tells me. “There was this funny one once that came hidden as a business letter and when you opened it up it was describing something ridiculous like “come visit this island resort, see the national bird and the glorious country”, in the corner there was this very small white tab sellotaped on. It's definitely something buyers appreciate.“

Another way you, the buyer, could be caught buying drugs off the Dark Net is if it could be proved that you did just that; that you weren't quite as anonymous as you thought you were. But Simon says he felt “more or less safe using it,” adding: “If you're a person just buying 10 pounds worth of stuff, no one cares. When you think about it from the perspective of law enforcement, they are there to get the sellers rather than buyers.“

Another finding in the RAND 2016 report was that the Dark Net has started to play a major role in supplying 'offline' drug markets, as street dealers buy in bulk at cheaper prices and sell on for profit. Researchers found a quarter of the drug sales were for listings worth more than $1,000 (£768), suggesting that these purchases were intended for resale.

Dean, a student at the University of Cambridge, started dealing in his second year and supplies himself from the Dark Web.

Global commission call for legalisation of drugs

Explaining how an A* student such as him could get started in such a thing, he says: “It was only in second year when I had a look and realised how low the prices were compared to what you were getting on the street.

"That's how I got the idea of starting a business up. Quite large profit margins, a very easily available market- it was pretty straightforward. And yeah, I also wanted to pay off the debt I'd gotten into from my own drug use, buying off the street. I was heavily overdrawn so kind of needed to make some money and thought that's an easy way to do it.”

Just one example quoted to me was the potential of buying ecstasy pills at £2 a pop (in bulk) and selling them on for at least £10 each to student clubbers. Despite carrying considerable risks, this is clearly a highly lucrative way for dealers to supply themselves.

Asked what sort of profit he was making as a student dealer, Dean says: “I earn between a grand to a grand and a half a term (8 weeks at Cambridge). It actually mostly comes out of occasional big money makers. There are particular events throughout the year where everyone takes drugs and there was one time when I earned one grand in one week.”

Due to the in-depth review system and the incentive to provide good quality, reliable products in a highly competitive open market, some would argue that the Dark Web even makes drug taking safer.

Adam Winstock, Founder of the Global Drug Survey, pondered this question in a Huffington Post article: “It’s possible that products purchased on DNMs are safer to use as result of the filtering out of poor quality vendors and products... Could dark-markets help create credible on-line communities sharing harm reduction advice at point of purchase?”

Since he professes to have bought “dozens of different drugs” off the Dark Web, I question Dean about how the quality and reliability of the drugs he'd bought compared to those you buy on the street. He explains: “The quality is much, much better on the dark web. It's incomparable really. You don't really get dodgy pills off the dark web. I even got my drugs tested once and he could only find MDMA in them.”

With so many young people turning to Dark Web drug markets, it seems impossible that it won't continue to grow in popularity. But a potential threat to this is the Government’s new “Snooper's Charter” - which despite still not allowing the officials to track Dark Web activity would reveal Clear Net downloading of Tor or searching drug-related Reddit threads.

But Simon doesn't appear concerned about this: “A real sign of growing popularity is how people are generally converging on one store - Alphabay Market," he explains.

"It's got to the point now where they've refined the storefront and it's got very stable. If you went on Alphabay a year ago, they'd only have 20,000 listings of whatever drugs and now they have like 200,000 listings. I think that speaks for something.”

With regards to the 'Snooper's Charter', Dave says: “Well, I think it's a bloody violation of my personal freedoms, but it's not going to stop me buying drugs on the Internet.”

It seems likely that the popularity of Dark Web drug markets will continue to grow on UK campuses in the future, yet given the potentially improved safety and reliability of the products, many would argue this shouldn't necessarily be seen as a bad thing.

It’s a fact that young people will decide to experiment with drug use during their university years, so arguably the primary concern must be to optimise their safety. I would argue that the economic principles behind the Dark Web drug markets do just that.

*Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.

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