Increase in darknet market activity for cannabis as users stock up for lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted on our daily lives, including our behaviour as consumers. Just as we have seen online shopping for other goods increase during lockdowns, will we see a similar shift when it comes to illicit drugs? In a special report out today, Drug supply via darknet markets, the EMCDDA explores whether established methods of drug supply and distribution to consumers have changed during recent restrictions on movement.

The report analyses activity on three darknet markets (Agartha, Cannazon and Versus) in the first three months of 2020. As the situation is evolving rapidly, the review does not provide a comprehensive overview of the topic but rather preliminary evidence and a snapshot of developments to date.

The three markets were chosen for their size, significance for the EU drug market and the fact that they could be accessed for useable data on buyers’ feedback. Over 50 000 reviews from across the three markets were accessed. Qualitative information from a number of online forums was also analysed to further inform the analysis (over 850 posts accessed).

The report reveals that, in the darknet markets analysed over the three-month period, the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it appear to have resulted in an increase in activity levels, mainly related to cannabis products.

‘The cannabis market is a large one and many regular cannabis users may have decided to stock up, anticipating market disruption during the lockdown period’, states the report. ‘To some extent, this is observed in the data where an increase in online trade via darknet markets, driven largely by cannabis products, can be seen in February and March’.

In contrast to cannabis, the report shows that there appears to be a decline in the demand for synthetic drugs commonly used in recreational settings (e.g. MDMA) as people stay at home.

In the markets analysed, drug sales appear to originate primarily from the United Kingdom and Germany, however, the Netherlands is frequently cited as a source of some of the drugs on offer.

The data on cannabis show that, on the one hand, those buying volumes of cannabis for physical resale have reduced their activity, anticipating that resale may be more difficult due to social distancing measures. At the same time, established or new buyers seeking cannabis for personal use are increasing their activity on the market. This may explain the rising number of cannabis sales over time but diminishing revenues.

Cannazon, a market devoted to cannabis products, sold an estimated EUR 4.3 million worth of products over the three months, representing 1.6 metric tonnes.

Vendors have reacted in different ways. Some appear to be trying to maintain consumer confidence by informing buyers that they are operating in ‘business as usual’ mode. Others have reacted to reduced demand for some drugs by trying to stimulate sales using marketing techniques (e.g. discounts). Another group have opted to suspend their activities or explain to their buyers that they can expect some disruption.

A shift towards online drug supply could result in greater use of social media, secure messaging apps and darknet markets. Referrals to encrypted messenger services already appear to be growing. ‘If vendors and buyers switch to this type of technology, activities will not be visible through current darknet monitoring and interdiction will be more challenging,’ concludes the report.