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From Shakedown Street to Silk Road: Designer Drugs on the Dark Web

Why It Matters: Designer drugs can be developed and distributed, often before law enforcement is even aware of its existence, thanks to Dark Web marketplaces. The Internet is driving innovation among designer drug manufacturers and the rate of growth in the number of substances is increasing. While the Dark Web makes it possible to sell designer drugs at great speed, the Dark Web is also useful for law enforcement looking to investigate these activities.

The Dark Web is a place where you can buy almost anything. Drugs, weapons, illegal pornography, even assassin services are marketed there. In addition to combating the devil they know, law enforcement agencies face a large surge in the number of designer drugs. This growth and innovation in the development of new substances is driven in part by how easy it is to sell illicit goods on the Dark Web. Where there is profit to be made, malicious parties will try to take advantage of that. To properly address the increase in designer drugs that are sold on the Dark Web and consumed in communities around the world, law enforcement investigators need to turn to Dark Web marketplaces to stay abreast of new substances and trace their provenance.

The Invention of Drugs

Albert Hofmann, a Swiss-born scientist, began studying the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot for use in pharmaceutical applications. While researching lysergic acid derivatives, Hoffman first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. Several years later, while re-synthesizing the LSD, he absorbed a small amount of the drug through his fingertips at which time he discovered its powerful and hallucinatory effects. In 1943, Hoffman decided to perform another test, again on himself, to better understand the true effects of the drug. This test proved LSD to be a powerful psychoactive substance with high potency capable of causing shifts of consciousness. Throughout the 1950s, while scientists and researchers investigated LSDs potential clinical applications, it was used recreationally within medical circles and those acquainted with their work. Popularization outside the medical world was hastened by high-profile personalities who believed it would change the world and advocated its usage to counterculture movements at the time. It was not until the mid-1960s that the drug was declared illegal in several states, and the rest of the world followed suit.

The point is, it took nearly 20 years for LSD to move out of the lab to become a mainstream recreational drug. Were it not for the efforts of high-profile personalities that appealed to counter-culture movements at the time, it might have taken longer. Methamphetamine was first created in 1919. Used by troops during World War II and prescribed as a diet aid throughout the 1950s. It was not declared illegal until the 1970s.

Today, drugs can move from the lab to the street far quicker than in the past, largely because of the Internet and its capacity to support marketing and distribution on a large scale.

Grey Area of Designer Drugs

A designer drug is defined as a structural or functional analog of a controlled substance that has been designed to mimic the effects of the original drug in order to avoid classification as illegal or detection through standard drug tests.

There is a broadening range of research compounds being sold as designer drugs. Not only that, but it appears that new novel compounds are being invented by designer drug manufacturers themselves. In 2009, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) early warning system discovered 24 new drugs. In 2010, it found another 41, in 2011 it found 49 and in 2012, there were 73 more. The trend continues as such, with more new designer drugs appearing each year.

According to the director of  the EMCDDA, Wolfgang Goetz, “what is new is the wide range of substances now being explored, the aggressive marketing of products that have been intentionally mislabelled, the growing use of the internet, and the speed at which the market reacts to control measures.”

New designer drugs can launch quickly on the Internet with little effort. The ease and speed at which new compounds can be released make it increasingly difficult for legal authorities to monitor and test potentially dangerous designer drugs. There is no oversight and control measures are difficult to establish and enforce. The economy of designer drugs enables manufacturers to create and distribute their product at breakneck speed. By the time these new drugs are declared illegal, new compounds are already available to replace them. Broad analogous regulations have been enacted in some countries, but for the most part, the trade of designer drugs is a legal grey area. Many of them, nonetheless, are sold primarily on the black market.

Designer Drugs on the Dark Web

The Dark Web, where users can purchase common street drugs, makes available a wide range of designer drugs being produced in labs around the world. In this regard, manufacturers are able to manufacture and market new drugs with relative impunity compared to if they were selling LSD or methamphetamines. This does not make the consumption of designer drugs any less harmful, it just makes it harder to pinpoint and prosecute the responsible parties.

Drugs make up a fair percentage of what you can find on Dark Web marketplaces. The Dark Web makes it possible for sellers of illegal and legal, unprescribed drugs to market their wares. The appeal of the Dark Web is the ability to shield your identity and location. While some designer drugs are not technically illegal, that does not mean that they will not be in the future. Manufacturers of designer drugs also benefit from the large receptive consumer base that appears to be hungry for new drugs, regardless of their risks.

Given the speed at which these drugs can be developed, the ease at which they can “hit the street” on the Dark Web, and the dangers of taking untested chemical compounds, law enforcement agencies find themselves facing an incredible challenge. Besides tackling the vast number of illicit drugs currently in the market, law enforcement must be able to identify and investigate new drugs as they appear. The ability to access and search Dark Web markets to discover new designer drugs is a key part of this process. Media Sonar software provides safe and anonymous search capabilities for law enforcement agencies interested in investigating Dark Web marketplaces.

To learn more about how drugs are marketed and distributed on the Dark Web, and to get started investigating Dark Web marketplaces, contact us to book a meeting.

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