Dark web takedowns by cross-border law enforcement operations have a significant impact on the availability of opioids, in particular the lethal drug fentanyl, according to a new report from The Australian National University (ANU).
The report, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology's (AIC) Serious and Organised Crime Research Laboratory, analysed the impact of law enforcement seizures and darknet market closures, including the availability of highly potent synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil.
"When police seize and close down a market, or target a particular illicit product, the impact is complex and subtle. Our research shows seizures and shutdowns caused drugs to become less available," lead researcher Emeritus Professor Roderic Broadhurst, from the ANU Cybercrime Observatory, said.
"The markets response to law enforcement can be seen to be like the game whack-a-mole, with markets popping up somewhere else if one is closed down. And when they pop up again, they are reshaped.
"We found evidence that shutdowns resulting from transnational police operations dispersed and displaced markets, vendors and buyers, and it also reduced the availability of these drugs and their prices on the markets."
The researchers collected data over 352 weekdays, from 2 January to 20 December 2019, looking at eight "high street" darknet markets.
The markets, which sell a variety of contraband including illicit drugs, included Apollon, Empire, Dream, Nightmare, Tochka (aka Point), Berlusconi, Valhalla (aka Silkitie) and Wall Street.
The researchers tracked trends to measure changes in the price and availability of opioids, and the numbers of vendors or dealers selling them.
In April 2019 they found three new markets - Agartha, Dream Alt and Samsara - were added after Wall Street and Valhalla were seized by law enforcement and Dream voluntarily closed.
In July, new market Cryptonia was added after Nightmare shut themselves down and ran off with people's money. Among the original markets only Empire remained active at the end of 2019.
The report shows the voluntary closure of Dream led to significant dispersal and displacement to both emerging and popular active and robust markets, resulting in an increase in overall listings of opioids.
However, when law enforcement subsequently shutdown Wall Street - a market which accounted for the majority of fentanyl listings - it also resulted in vendors moving elsewhere to list their products.
The report says a further takedown of a large market, Berlusconi, an Italian based darknet market that had grown significantly in response to other market closures, was followed by a significant decrease in overall opioid listings.
"Since their inception, dark web markets have continued to evolve and they present unique problems to law enforcement agencies," Professor Broadhurst said.
"When there is a crackdown there is a knock on effect, it is like a searchlight and markets become aware that they are going to get a bright light shined on them for that particular product, especially high risk product such as fentanyl.
"Market operators and vendors are keenly aware of the risks and adapt accordingly.
"We found markets close down and pop up again with a refreshed set of security features, price hikes or even self-regulation of the kinds of products sold to avoid the spotlight.
"Many markets, particularly markets that want to stay operational, will often ban vendors from selling those sorts of products, just like they do with child exploitation materials."
AIC Deputy Director Dr Rick Brown said the research results highlight the importance of sustained law enforcement operations.
"This report has shown that darknet markets are complex. Vendors move quickly to sell their products elsewhere when markets shutdown, and it's not until several major markets closed that we saw a real impact on total opioid listings," Dr Brown said.
"The results really reinforce the importance of sustained efforts by law enforcement agencies to combat the sale of opioids and other drugs online."
Professor Broadhurst says fentanyl is a designer synthetic opioid that can be up to 80 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil is not for human use and was originally designed to sedate elephants.
The research was done at the height of the availability of these drugs in 2019.
"The disruption to the online supply of fentanyl in particular is notable," Professor Broadhurst said.
"This research was done pre-COVID but what we've been seeing now is a lifting of all boats as buyers seek alternative means of supply. A small stealth package posted home becomes an easy option.
"Since the pandemic everybody's going online. Markets have been boosted by increased demand by buyers and vendors able to supply or substitute products such as opioids, partly to get around problems with lock downs, and border closures.
"There's a lot going on the dark web now and this research shows the impact of complex transnational law enforcement operations."