Despite the dark web’s relatively small piece of the drug trade, law-enforcement agencies around the world are trying to shut down its markets. By some accounts, the approach is working. According to Walsh, after Operation Bayonet in 2017—an international law-enforcement effort that closed two large markets, AlphaBay and Hansa—there was a noticeable decline in customers buying drugs from the dark web. And according to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2019, 15 percent of customers reported using the dark web less frequently after the closures, and 9 percent said they stopped buying from the markets entirely.
But many people just move to new markets. With the collapse of the major players in drug-selling crypto-markets, Walsh adds, buyers dispersed to many of the smaller markets scattered across the dark web. And there is also an uptick in some regions, according to the 2019 Global Drug Survey, which reported that the English-speaking world has seen a steady increase in people who have reported using drugs purchased over the dark web for the past six years.
The closure of dark-web drug markets has also had an unforeseen downside, at least in research: The lack of anonymity has led to an erosion of trust. For some researchers, this can make tracking down willing participants difficult. And for some harm-reduction advocates, the looming threat of police crackdowns can be cause for worry.
Angus Bancroft, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh, is still in the early stages of his research, but it’s already difficult to track down customers willing to talk.
Much like Chancellor, Bancroft hopes to use machine learning to study drug use and recovery in online communities, though mostly he’s looking at the dark web, rather than the forums out in the open.
His team has begun early work on a computer program and preliminary talks with the operators of a few dark-web forums. But police are simultaneously trying to close down the forums, which has made the people who post there wary.
“With the dark web, I think you need a longer engagement to build up trust,” he says.
If Bancroft can get enough participants, his team plans to create a computer program that can recognize shifts in drug habits and the emergence of new chemicals on dark-web markets. He hopes to use the findings to pull in relevant harm-reduction information, and use both dark-web forums and sites like Bluelight as a way to spread it to the users.
Bancroft’s work may be something relatively new to academia, but it follows in the footsteps of other harm-reduction advocates such as Fernando Caudevilla, a family physician based in Madrid, Spain.
Caudevilla may also serve as a cautionary tale. From April to October 2013, he posted on Silk Road’s drug forums as DoctorX, answering 321 public questions about drug use and safety before the FBI closed it down. Silk Road’s operator, Ross Ulbricht, was later arrested.