COVID-19 & Illicit Drug Trade


    COVID-19 Drug Trade

    Over the past seven months, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an international interruption the global illicit drug trade.

    Global markets have had to endure disruption in supply chains and distribution lines resulting from shelter-in-place initiatives and work-force reduction.

    Illicit drug markets have not been immune to the economic symptoms of the pandemic. For example, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), heroin production in Afghanistan has been affected in mixed ways. Fewer workers travelling to poppy harvesting regions could result will likely result in a reduction in the raw opium supply needed to produce black tar heroin. Manufacturers in Afghanistan also require an import of the precursor acetic anhydride to help refine the raw opium into heroin. Since trade streams of acetic anhydride are disrupted on a global scale, it is likely that Afghan heroin producers will run into greater challenges in acquiring it.    

    Further down the distribution pipeline, the lower levels are also experiencing changes. According to that same UNODC report, retail shortages have been reported globally. Such a shortage has a direct effect on drug consumers. Those consumers are a large percentage of the world’s population who are feeling the ramifications of pandemic-caused unemployment and socioeconomic disparity. Street-level drug shortage paired with socioeconomic disadvantage is a potentially dangerous combination, and the desperation and increased hopelessness in users will highly likely lead them to maintain their drug disorders by any means.

    As far as the modern illegal drug trade goes, digital marketplaces have been on the rise since the 2013 federal seizure of the infamous Silk Road market who found its home in the dark web. Virtual markets, social media platforms, and encrypted messaging applications have all become ways to sell and consume products in the illicit drug trade with limited contact between sellers and buyers.

    The relative convenience and ease of purchasing drugs digitally is a unique anomaly in the otherwise COVID-19 pandemic affected global drug trade. While supply chains and logistics have been disrupted at a macro level, there has been a noticeable upsurge in activity over digital mediums as the pandemic as continued on. Before examining that increase, it would be helpful to give a brief overview of how digital trade works.

    Key Concepts

    These concepts are at the core of digital drug distribution and purchase:

    • Dark Web

      Simply put, the dark web is a massive region of the internet that is inaccessible without specialized connections or software. The term “surface web” is generally used to describe the layers of the internet most commonly accessed by a standard user, commonly through search engines like Google or DuckDuckGo. The surface web is accessed using browsers like Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. The dark web, however, is different. None of those mentioned search engines or browsers can be used to access it. Instead, specialized software like Tor is the way dark web users access its contents.

    • Dark Web Marketplaces

      Some would call dark web marketplaces bastions of freedom and prime examples of the power of a truly free market. Others would call them a digital skid row where you can buy virtually every vice known to humankind. Nonetheless, dark web markets in a neutral sense are similar to Amazon or eBay, except they contain virtually no restrictions on what can be sold. Dark Web vendors will establish a virtual storefront with their inventory of products. Each vendor and product can be rated by consumers, usually using a 5-star system and a comment section. If a vendor sells quality products, has quick mailing, and uses efficient stealth in packaging, they have a high chance of staying in business. If not, the free market concept will eventually push them out. This allows for a sort of “quality control” with products like illicit drugs.

    • Cryptocurrency

      Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are the method of payment in dark web marketplaces. Blockchain technology associated with cryptocurrency allows for a greater amount of security when it comes to financial transactions. Although using cryptocurrency is not 100% untraceable, it is vastly more secure than debit, credit, or bank account transfers.

    • PGP Encryption

      Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption is an encryption system used between sellers and users in dark web markets. Essentially, the seller and buyer will each have their own private PGP key that they use to code their messages. This is a safety measure in the case that law enforcement or an adversary intercepts the communication.

    • Encrypted Messaging Applications

      Outside of Dark Web marketplaces, encrypted messaging applications like Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp, are commonly used in tandem with social media to buy and sell illicit drugs.

    The State of the Digital Drug Trade & COVID-19

    Digital marketplaces have experienced an upsurge of drug listings since the beginning of the pandemic. According to a report by the cyber intelligence company Sixgill, there was a 495% increase in drug listings between December 2019 and April 2020. That same report documented dramatic increases in listings for Cannabis, Cocaine, and MDMA. Dark Web vendors also had a reported increase in offers for “discounts” and “sales” as a way to attract financially hurting buyers.

    COVID-19 Drug Trade

    Apart from the Dark Web, social media drug transactions are becoming more and more common throughout the pandemic. The number of drugs sold using Instagram, Signal, and Telegram, are generally small quantities. Microtransactions make it easier to move drug orders from dealers to clients, while applications like Instagram can be used to promote their product in a creative or visually appealing way.

    Similarly, to dark web marketplaces, social media drug transactions utilize the postal system for transport. Unlike PGP, encrypted messaging applications automatically encrypt messages for the buyer and vendor. It is highly likely that social media transactions will increase, with the pandemic seemingly having no end for the foreseeable future.


    There will always be a market for drug trade even with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting logistics. Although the macro-level trade is affected, there is a notable increase in drug activity, with both users and sellers utilizing digital marketplaces in favour of street dealing. The minimal contact and security contingencies within the digital marketplace will likely continue to attract users.

    Image: The Conversation (link)

    Michael Ellmer
    Michael Ellmer
    Michael is the Head of Research and Editor at Grey Dynamics. He spent eight years as a rifleman the United States Marine Corps infantry, with tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific region. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in strategic intelligence analysis at Brunel University London.

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