Dark web drug sales more than doubled after the jailing of the creator of the original Silk Road hidden marketplace, according to a study published in a forthcoming issue of the British Journal of Criminology.
Ross Ulbricht was handed a whole life sentence with no chance of parole two years ago after FBI agents unmasked him as the administrator of the notorious service, which allowed users to anonymously purchase drugs, weapons and a range of other illegal goods and services.
Jailing Ulbricht on 29 May 2015, Judge Katherine Forrest told him he would die behind bars as a deterrent to others who might be tempted to step into his shoes.
Ulbricht’s supporters argue his sentence was unduly harsh, and have campaigned unsuccessfully for it to be reduced.
Global sales of drugs on the dark web rocketed from $100,000 (€89,000) a day to $250,000 following Ulbricht’s sentencing, according to data collected from Agora, which is now the world’s largest dark web illicit marketplace.
In an interview with Wired, study author Isak Ladegaard said: “The timing suggests that people weren’t discouraged from buying and selling drugs.
“The data suggests that trade increased. And one likely explanation is that all the media coverage only made people more aware of the existence of the Silk Road and similar markets.”
The Boston College sociologist’s findings appear to indicate that the harshness of Ulbricht’s sentence did little to deter people from buying and selling illicit substances on the dark web.
“It is possible that media coverage of the trial attracted new customers and vendors, who otherwise would not have known that cryptomarkets existed, but that the number of new registrants would have been much larger if Silk Road’s founder had been acquitted,” Ladegaard said.
Separately, this year’s Global Drug Survey, which was released this week, revealed that the size and scale of dark web drug marketplaces have continued to grow over the past 12 months, despite global law enforcement agencies’ attempts to disrupt them.
The report also found evidence that dark web marketplaces may be contributing to a rise in the purity of some drugs.
The number of respondents who reported having to seek emergency medical attention after consuming substances such as MDMA and heroin increased last year, suggesting the purity of some drugs may be increasing as online dealers compete for customers.
Dark web marketplaces offer eBay-style feedback systems that allow buyers to grade the quality of the drugs they buy.
In the UK, the number of people seeking emergency medical treatment after consuming cocaine has increased from 0.4% to 1% since 2013, according to report.
“The darknet markets offer users the opportunity to obtain good quality cocaine with reduced levels of perceived risk,” according to the authors of the survey.
“As such, it might be the case that darknet markets lead to more harmful use by some people.”