The Alarming Increase in Dark Web Drugs

A new study from the Australian National University (ANU) suggests it has never been easier to buy synthetic opioids on the dark web. The equivalent of  billions of doses a day are available, giving people easy access to drugs such as carfentanil and fentanyl.

Carfentanil was originally designed for sedating elephants and is not intended for human use.

The researchers behind the report say that it highlights a massive synthetic opioid market operating through the dark web.

The researchers discovered millions of doses went up for sale each day. There was an average 15-22kg of these potent drugs available through the dark web.

Fentanyl and Carfentanil

Fentanyl is one of many designer synthetic opioids. It is considered to be 100x more powerful than morphine. It is so potent that the average dose of fentanyl is 200 micrograms. Researchers discovered that millions of fentanyl doses were available for purchase every day.

Carfentanil is even more powerful, coming in at around 10,000 the strength of morphine. The amount of carfentanil available online is nothing short of alarming. Researchers were stunned by how much of the drug they were able to find, with billions of doses available for purchase any given day.

Criminal networks use fentanyl to lace their heroin to create synthetic heroin that has changed the landscape of how narcotics are sold.

Fentanyl was once limited and used only as an anaesthetic. It is a potent knock-out drug that is effective but short-acting. Recently it has become used more and more as a recreational opioid. Some people who use fentanyl are addicts who became addicted after using it as prescription medication.

It’s possible for fentanyl to be made safely, such as in a kitchen Breaking Bad style, but carfentanil is considered to be a biohazard because of how dangerous it is.

Drugs on The Dark Web

The researchers collected data from the dark web across 51 days in January and February of 2019, analysing six of the most popular dark web markets.

Over 123,000 unique drug listings could be found online, with around 7,400 of opioids listed on six sites that are basically the “Main Street” of the dark web markets.

The researchers came to the conclusion that the global market for narcotics has changed. The bigger picture is that there has been a shift to factory produced synthetics instead of plant-based narcotics. Amphetamines, opioids, and designer drugs have become the popular choice.

This kind of cybercrime brings with it significant challenges for the police to overcome. The quantities of the drugs has been scaled down and, when coupled with the anonymous access offered to users and distributors alike, it makes it difficult to detect and monitor drug activity.

Key Findings from the ANU Report

  • Data collected from six dark web markets every day between 2 January and 23 February 2019 reveal the type, amount, and physical forms of fentanyl on the market
  • Of the 123,000+ unique drug listings found by researchers, around 7,400 were for opioids
  • 439 of the drugs listed (0.347%) were for fentanyl products
  • Between 15 and 22kg of fentanyl could be bought on nay given day, with average prices per gram falling between A$30 and A$301
  • Over half of all drugs listed were found on mainstream dark web marketplaces
  • Products laced with fentanyl were found under a range of colloquial names including Bear, TNT, Apache, and China White
  • Fentanyl is available in five physical forms including powder, tablets, sprays, and solutions. The most popular choices are powder and patches.

The Rise of Fentanyl Use in the UK

Fentanyl use has risen sharply in the UK in recent years. The extremely potent synthetic opioid is increasingly being mixed with or sold as heroin with often tragic consequences.

Fentanyl Deaths in the UK

According to a 2021 report by the UK Focal Point on Drugs, deaths related to fentanyl have risen by nearly 300% since 2018. 129 fentanyl-related deaths occurred in 2020 compared to just 32 deaths in 2018. This follows a similar trend in the United States, where overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl have increased over 1000% in the last 6 years.

The illicit fentanyls – fentanyl analogues not intended for medical use – pose particular risks for users. Their high potency means determining a safe dose can be extremely difficult without sophisticated measuring equipment. Users often ingest much more than intended with sometimes fatal consequences.

Treating Fentanyl Overdoses

The opioid antagonist naloxone can quickly reverse an opioid overdose and save lives. Naloxone kits are increasingly being made available among at-risk populations. The UK government has changed regulations to allow naloxone to be supplied without a prescription. Public Health England advises those likely to witness an overdose to carry naloxone.

However, multiple doses of naloxone may be required to treat an overdose on extremely potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The half-life of naloxone is 30 to 90 minutes, while fentanyl’s effects can persist for 2 to 4 hours. Additional naloxone doses may be needed once the initial dose has worn off. This highlights the importance of calling emergency services even after administering naloxone.

Recommendations for Reducing Fentanyl Harms

Harm reduction approaches aimed at preventing fentanyl-related deaths focus on three key areas:

  • Awareness – Many users are unaware when fentanyl is present leading to unintended overdoses. Drug checking services allow users to test drugs for fentanyl. Outreach programs also help raise awareness of overdose risks.
  • Access to naloxone – Wider access to take-home naloxone kits gives the opportunity to reverse overdoses and save lives. Friends and family of drug users are encouraged to carry naloxone.
  • Safer drug use advice – Due to risks from uneven mixing, users are advised to avoid injecting drugs suspected to contain fentanyl. Test doses should be taken when trying a new supply. Using with others is also recommended so help is on hand if an overdose occurs.

Harm reduction approaches recognize that drug use cannot simply be eliminated through prohibition. Pragmatic measures aimed at keeping drug users alive have the potential to save many lives as the fentanyl crisis continues.

Dark Web Drugs in 2024

The global pandemic of 2020 had a massive impact on the drugs trade, particularly in the purchase of drugs over the dark web. As more people in the UK were forced to stay indoors, there’s online drugs trade boomed. In 2021, Adele Robinson carried out an investigation into the buying and selling of illegal sleeping and anxiety pills. This podcast explain how lockdown fuelled the online drugs market.

In early 2021, police swooped to arrest suspected members of an organised crime group responsible for selling massive quantities of MDMA on the dark web. At the same time, postal authorities in various countries all announced a sharp increase in drugs being sent by post, with a record number of packages being seized by authorities before arriving at their intended destination.

In May 2021, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported that fentanyl was being sold to minors over social media.After exchanging messages on network, the dealer and customer would go on to organise delivery of the drugs via post. Often the drugs were being promoted by dealers who would post photos on their profile or use hashtags to generate traffic. Undercover agents from  the DEA having been posing as customers online to try and catch dealers and end the supply of drugs through this channel.

Photo: “Drug Testing” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Testing

Zoom Testing is a leading UK drug testing company and a supplier of Drug Test Kits.

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