Last month a project called eDarkTrends posted an alert on the National Drug Early Warning System, a bulletin board run jointly by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the University of Maryland.
Over just a two-week period beginning in late March, eDarkTrends had detected five new synthetic opioid drugs being sold from illicit labs in China. Each was being offered for sale at $6,500 per kilogram, payable in Bitcoin, from digital bazaars on the so-called darknet (or dark web)—a highly encrypted portion of the Internet.
One of the five drugs was called “MPF-47,700,” and was hyped in market blurbs as a “synthetic opioid … that produces [pain-relieving], relaxing, sedating, and euphoric effects.” Like two of the other four new drugs, it was touted as a “U47700 analog.”
U47700, also known as “pink” or “pinky,” is now infamous in law enforcement circles. In late 2012, a Park City, Utah, teenager bought some on the darknet, and shared it with two thirteen-year-old friends. The friends, Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth, ingested it, overdosed, and died. (The Department of Homeland Security calls U47700 a “novel opioid of the trans-N-[2-(methylamino)cyclohexyl]-benzamide class.”)
The most recent tally from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that illicitly manufactured and trafficked synthetic opioids—including fentanyl, chemical variations on fentanyl, and still more exotic substances, like U47700—are now associated with more overdose deaths than any other category of drug: 46 percent of the more than 42,000 opioid fatalities in 2016, and 31 percent of the nearly 64,000 total drug deaths that year.
Synthetics’ potency accounts for their lethality: just a few milligrams or less—the equivalent of a few grains of salt—can prove fatal. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, for instance, while carfentanil, one of its cousins (or “analogs”), is 5,000 times more potent than heroin.
“The future of the opioid addiction and overdose death problem,” drug policy expert Robert DuPont told Opioid Watch in a recent interview, is being “driven by the growing sophistication of the purely illegal drug market, which increasingly focuses on purely synthetic opioids.”
He continued, ominously: “Illegal drug users … are able to buy more drugs, at higher potency, and lower prices, with more convenient delivery, than ever before.”
The eDarkTrends group, which regularly posts its discoveries of new synthetic drugs—known as “novel psychoactive substances,” or NPS—is an interdisciplinary group based at Wright State University in Kittering, Ohio, near Dayton. Wright State is in Montgomery County, which, in 2016, had the worst per capita drug overdose rate in Ohio—a state with, in turn, the second worst such rate in the country. In 2016, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids accounted for 58.2 percent of Ohio’s unintentional drug overdose deaths, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Some of eDarkTrends’ researchers are affiliated with the Center for Interventions, Treatment, and Addiction (CITAR) at Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, while others are with the university’s Kno.e.sis group, which applies computer science to biomedical sciences, health informatics, and cognitive science.
eDarkTrends, which receives funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is now about halfway through a two-year project to shed greater light on darknet drug vending operations. While other agencies take snapshots of this activity, eDarkTrends aims to provide something closer to a documentary film, monitoring the waxing and waning trends involving different drugs, particularly clandestinely produced synthetic opioids.
The Drug Enforcement Agency also monitors such activity, of course. (It declined to comment for this article.) But eDarkTrends focuses solely on public health goals. It does not interact with vendors, nor try to identify them.
“We are simply doing scientific things,” says Amit Sheth, executive director of kno.e.sis, “disseminating information that can bring public good.”
“On ‘the surface’ there are several sites that tell you where to look,” says Francois Lamy, an eDarkTrends researcher. Lamy is speaking to Opioid Watch via Skype, because he lives in Thailand, where he teaches sociology to graduate students at Mahidol University in Nakhon Pathom province. By “the surface,” he means the easily accessible Internet that we are all familiar with.
As an example, he navigates to Deepdotweb.com. There he navigates to a list of the most active darknet marketplaces—known as cryptomarkets—with descriptions, reviews by patrons, and links.
Among them he point out DreamMarket—one of the busiest illicit drug markets since the demise of AlphaBay and Silk Road, taken down by law enforcement in 2017 and 2013, respectively. He notes that DreamMarket’s URL ends in .onion, which indicates that it is on the darknet, accessible only via the TOR browser.
Though the terms darknet and dark web have been used to mean different things over time, the darknet, as used here, was developed in 2002 by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a means of conducting secure communications. It’s a network of servers around the globe which mask the origin of communications by encrypting messages at each stage of relay, employing a utility called The Onion Router (TOR). Today it’s used for both good and bad: by drug dealers and child pornographers, but also by political dissidents in authoritarian countries and, indeed, by journalists and their sources.
“DreamMarket is the biggest right now,” Lamy says, “and I’m going to choose category ‘drugs, opioids, fentanyl.’” After a pause: “What I see is 263 ads—variations on fentanyl, you name it.”
On a typical day, Lamy sends a semi-automated “crawler” to search through the darknet markets. It is only semi-automated, because he must manually intervene from time to time to prevent it from being kicked off sites by CAPTCHA devices—analogous to the ones we encounter on the “surface” net, requiring us to check boxes or transcribe a string of distorted characters. (CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing tests to tell Computers and People Apart.) Some CAPTCHA devices used by cryptomarkets are trained to detect and block the repetitious clicking typical of bots, Lamy explains, so he has had to tweak his crawler to click more randomly.
Lamy will, at first, dispatch his crawler looking for broad search terms, like “fentanyl” or “cannabis.” He then enters the results in the database eDarkTrends is building: substance; quantity for sale; price; reputation of the seller (based on buyer feedback, just like on eBay or Amazon); the alleged country of origin (indicated by the vendor); and the countries the vendor ships to.
The seller could be a lab, or it could be someone two or three steps removed—an intermediary attempting to sell either to other resellers or to end-users. It’s the nature of these markets that one never knows who one is dealing with.
Often vendors are testing their wares, and that’s especially true with newly minted synthetic drugs. Vendors sometimes offer small samples at discounted prices to trusted customers for review, Lamy explains. If the reviewers are satisfied, the vendor posts testimonials.
Sometimes, Lamy continues, new concoctions appear and vanish almost immediately, possibly due to negative market reaction. Some reviews can be found on “surface” websites, like Reddit. Last month, for instance, one Reddit participant panned a new fentanyl analog called PMAF in harsh terms:
“Just saying stay far far far away. … psychosis sets in on relatively low doses around 1mg. … Sure the withdrawal from opioid use goes away but so does sanity. … I quickly took a benzo (lucky to have a sitter) and slept this shit off and flushed the remaining 10 grams upon coming to. … It’s very bad in a I experienced hell while living kind of way. Hallucinations are very disorienting and you get delusional from a tiny bit.”
Though poorly received compounds may disappear quickly, they can also reappear under different names, Lamy says, complicating his work and reviving the public health threat.
Because using a TOR browser is not simple, darknet transactions are not going to supplant the street trade in drugs, says Raminta Daniulaityte, a member of the eDarkTrends team who is also the associate director of CITAR, the Wright State addiction research center. The group frequently interviews patients, and “none of our interview subjects got their drugs on the Internet,” she says. “Regular users get their drugs from dealers, usually by phone. But how the dealers get [the drugs]—that’s an area we don’t know about.”
A 2016 report by the Rand Corporation estimated the Internet drug market to be worth about $250 million a year—a tiny slice of a total market commonly estimated at more than half a trillion dollars.
But it’s growing. And it’s the proving ground and launch pad for a new wave of lethal drugs—coming soon to parks, homeless camps, and schoolyards near you.