Cannabis users turn to darkweb as Covid-19 lockdown hits supply lines

New findings come from European agency monitoring of three dark web markets

The illicit online cannabis market grew significantly in March when most EU countries, including Ireland, introduced some form of movement restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus. File photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The illicit online cannabis market grew significantly in March when most EU countries, including Ireland, introduced some form of movement restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus. File photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

 

Cannabis users have increasingly turned to the darkweb to source the drug as lockdowns across Europe affect traditional supply lines, new research has found.

The illicit online cannabis market grew significantly in March when most EU countries, including Ireland, introduced some form of movement restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Conversely there is less demand for large consignments of cannabis which are destined for resale, likely the result of dealer concerns about being able to shift their product at street level during lockdown.

The findings come from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which studied pricing trends on three of the most active darkweb markets selling drugs in the EU.

Price drop

Between January, when the pandemic had yet to significantly affect the EU, and March, when most countries had imposed some sort of movement restrictions, market activity across the three sites increased by over 25 per cent, with cannabis sales accounting for most of the growth.

Researchers suggested recreational users were turning to the darkweb as they anticipated difficulties in buying cannabis from their regular dealers.

Mid and large size sales of drugs dropped significantly during the same period as did the prices. “This could be explained by those active in resale of cannabis purchased from online markets predicting that their opportunities will be disrupted and therefore not ordering new stocks,” the EMCDDA said.

The trends described have been seen in Ireland.

Drug dealers have moved operations from urban centres to the suburbs due to lack of activity and there is evidence of dealers calling in drug debts to shore up their finances.

However, gardaí have continued to seize large consignments of drugs from organised criminals, partly due the increased garda presence on the streets and at checkpoints.

Most online vendors analysed ship from the UK (47 per cent) and Germany (30 per cent). France and Spain account for six and four per cent respectively. Only about one per cent of online cannabis dealers were operating from Ireland.

Marketing strategies

On the darkweb, vendors selling in bulk have resorted to marketing strategies to stimulate demand. These include offering discounts and dropping minimum order thresholds.

Vendors are also keen to stress their operations are “business as usual” during the pandemic and that supply lines are uninterrupted.

“All orders are sent from a calm [drug-trading wise] country in Europe. So there is a significantly higher chance that it will not get caught,” one vendor promised.

“We have discounted all of our listings during the virus to help everyone. We have everything from Top shelf AAA Indoor Flower, golden Shatter, Wax, Crumble, Carts, budget shatter, and much more!”, said another.

Cocaine sales and prices have remained mostly stable during the pandemic. However, researchers said there is evidence of decreased demand for “party drugs” such as MDMA, likely the result of events such as club nights and music festivals being cancelled.

Researchers also found evidence of online dealers increasingly redirecting prospective buyers from the online marketplace to encrypted communication apps like Telegram or Wickr.

Such apps offer much greater security from law enforcement and makes the online drugs market much harder to analyse.

The EMCDDA findings are reflected in a separate report from the United Nations. “There are indications that the lockdown measures in Europe may lead to an increase in demand for cannabis products, which could intensify drug trafficking activities from North Africa to Europe in the future.”

The stockpiling of drugs is likely to lead to a glut of low-cost, high purity drugs when lockdowns are eventually lifted which could “lead to an increase in the risk of drug overdoses,” the UN said.