Whether because of fentanyl adulteration or the present pandemic, buying drugs from the “dark web”—a term for sites in the unsearchable “deep web” part of the internet that require specific software to access—has never looked so appealing. Even if you still have a regular in-person dealer that you trust, they may not know what they’re selling, or, for that matter, be able to find a supplier whose gear isn’t compromised.
I, for one, have basically given up on Washington, DC’s street “heroin.” Distressingly, it’s mostly oddly colored fentanyl. The vast majority of “down,” as they call the dreary, unpleasant stuff, doesn’t even contain heroin. Plus, the far-too-common grey sort (known confusingly as “grey death,” despite often being on the weaker side) is rather hard to inject. A pale, ashy shade in powder form, it turns pitch-black when mixed with water. This opaqueness makes the flash of blood impossible to see, so you never quite know whether you’ve hit a vein.
After one too many experiences with this joke of a drug, I decided to look for a new source. I’ve heard from friends and drug-user forums alike that dark-web drugs tend to be of better quality, and that buying in this way reduces some risks. In short, dark-web markets could be a form of harm reduction.
Various friends and acquaintances of mine have a lot of experience of buying in this way, so I decided to ask them about why they choose to do this, and how they assess the pros and cons.
They differ in how they came to this resource. My friend Cory*, for example, is an experienced customer of darknet marketplaces, as they’re also known. He no longer likes buying from the streets of New York, as he did when he began using heroin in the 1990s, because of the risks he experienced in certain neighborhoods. Now in his 40s, he claims to have purchased dope from every dark web seller in North America. Knowing him, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Marie had never purchased drugs in the conventional way—and still hasn’t.
Canadian software engineer Marie, on the other hand, never even bothered with offline purchasing. Her decision to begin buying drugs online came at an extraordinarily trying time in her life, in 2016. She’d just escaped an abusive relationship and lost most of her support network in the process. And despite being in psychiatric treatment, Marie didn’t feel as if she were improving.
“At some point, I was bargaining with myself, trying to find a reason to live, and I thought: Of all the drugs they’ve given me, they’ve only targeted a few areas of my brain. What if the problem is somewhere else?” she told me. Having heard that ketamine can relieve symptoms of depression, she decided to try it herself. She had never purchased drugs in the conventional way—and, at the age of 28, still hasn’t. Her background in computers and information security gave her an advantage when it came to navigating the dark web.
Terence decided to begin buying online because—as a mid-career professional and father from Minnesota, now in his late 30s—he no longer has the connections that he did when he was formerly addicted to heroin. He wanted to be able to buy high-quality psychedelics from a trusted, reliable source and the dark web seemed like the best place to do so.
“Turns out the process is fascinating and [it] was interesting to learn all the aspects of it, from PGP encryption to TOR basics, TAILS, etc,” he explained, making me wish I knew more about computers. Interestingly, buying in this manner also led him to develop a lasting passion for computer science and privacy.
Brian, a writer, harm reduction supporter and avid drug consumer in his 60s, hasn’t ever bought directly from the dark web. He has been buying online since the 1990s. Before the United Kingdom, where he lives, banned “legal highs” in 2016, he would purchase spice, mephedrone, kratom, salvia and psychedelics from specialty websites. He began doing this after the law cracked down on brick-and-mortar headshops. To this day, he still orders nitrous oxide from cream charger companies.
“The maximum most cream charger companies will let an individual buy is 200 whippets, which I pay £60 to £70 [GBP] for. For legal reasons you have to say what legitimate reason you want them for (getting high is excluded) so I always write ‘for use in erotic parties where we squirt cream all over our bodies and lick it off,’” he explained to me over email. “Must try that one day, haha.”
Brian usually buys his illegal drugs from “traditional dealers,” as he put it. But occasionally, he’ll ask a friend who already uses a darknet marketplace to get him something from there. His reluctance to make the purchases himself stems from fear. He’s heard too many stories about buyers getting busted when law enforcement organizations take over sites to feel comfortable. After weathering seven in-person busts over the years, he’d prefer not to get caught again.
Dark web marketplaces aren’t the lawless Wild West many newcomers might assume them to be. Comprehensive review systems hold vendors accountable. If their dope contains fentanyl or benzos, everyone will know. Buyers can typically give overall ratings (on a scale of one to five), as well as seperate ones for qualities like price, stealth and delivery speed. They’re also able to write out reviews the way one might on a mainstream shopping site. However, unlike Amazon, buyers can only leave feedback on items they’ve purchased. This keeps people from posting fake reviews.
“You’re able to do the research before you buy—just as you might with a new blender or lawnmower. This adds a layer of safety.”
Terence bought psychedelics online for this very reason: the accountability of online marketplaces. “I have hopes that DNMs [darknet markets] could do a lot for user health and safety in general,” he said. “When you buy from [an in-person] dealer, you don’t know that much about what they’re selling. Virtually all your information comes from the seller. Because of how quickly transactions happen, especially on the street, you don’t even have a way to verify anything. For all you know, the dope could be a bag of crushed aspirin! But when you buy online, you can read reviews and look at the forums. You’re able to do the research before you buy—just as you might with a new blender or lawnmower. This adds a layer of safety.”
People who sell through the marketplaces have a much harder time ripping buyers off. They can’t, for example, sell fake or weak dope without getting called out by reviewers. They’re also unable to take someone’s money and never deliver the product, thanks to the payment scheme. “You deposit bitcoin into the escrow system—no different than paying for something on eBay or Amazon,” Cory explained. “When the package arrives, you ‘finalize’ the transaction, which releases funds to the dealer.”
Vendors with higher feedback ratings can get away with asking for “early finalization.” This system (along with the reviews and forums) incentivizes them to sell what they say they’re selling; ripping people off has consequences.
Purchasing online also eliminates risks associated with visiting open-air drug markets, where both robberies and law enforcement busts might be common. Marie, who no longer uses, found that buying from dark-web marketplaces did cost more than buying from the street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But in her view, the relative safety of online purchases, as well as the increased purity and sheer variety of drugs available, more than made up for it.
While the purity of coke and heroin that she bought varied somewhat, it was much easier to avoid fentanyl. She also found that the psychedelics were virtually always of high quality. Like Cory, Marie felt that the rating system kept sellers honest.
Purchasing drugs online also eliminates the danger posed by traveling in possession of illegal substances. If you happen to live far from your dealer—for me, stocking up on dope used to mean taking a Metro trip and walking through a sketchy neighborhood—this is a significant plus. Being able to have your drugs delivered right to your door is so much simpler.
My sources agree that unwanted fentanyl is found in lower levels in drugs bought online compared with street drugs.
The anecdotally reported lower presence of unwanted fentanyl in dark-web drugs is an attraction for many in an era when opioid markets have been flooded with it. And if unwanted fentanyl does crop up online, buyers can easily warn each other by way of the review system or the forums.
That’s not to say that fentanyl is absent. According to Cory, only one online dealer in North America sells truly fentanyl-less heroin anymore. While a number claim to sell “fentanyl-free” dope, reviews indicate that they’re lying. (Some people also seek fentanyl and there are vendors who openly sell it.) Still, my sources agree, unwanted fentanyl is found in lower levels in drugs bought online compared with street drugs. Marie credits this with saving her life.
Being able to order drugs for self-medication so easily and discreetly, Marie continued, also kept misguided friends from trying to force her to quit. Contrary to popular belief, making a loved one become abstinent (even if you can) won’t cure the underlying issues that may have led them to use in the first place. For people who use opioids, it also increases their risk of overdose when they resume use with lower tolerance.
Some people really are better off using drugs (especially if their use helps them cope with serious trauma—and it often does). I know this from experience. Without dope, I’m too hopelessly depressed to work, study or even eat regularly. “I hate to imagine where I’d be without it,” said Marie of her use during a traumatic period of her life.
Despite the advantages, buying online does have its downsides—what doesn’t?
One obvious point is the challenge, for people without technical know-how, of accessing dark-web marketplaces through the necessary software. I would be able to do it with the help of my friends’ advice; without it, I’d be stuck relying on online guides that I might not feel comfortable trusting.
Similarly, you have to become a semi-expert on Bitcoin. After all, you can’t exactly use Paypal or your credit card to pay for illegal drugs. Cory explained that Bitcoin’s anonymous nature is both its greatest virtue and worst flaw. If you accidentally send it to the wrong address, you’ll never get it back. The same goes for Bitcoin stolen by hackers. There’s also the problem of the currency’s constantly fluctuating value.
“Bitcoin is expensive and highly volatile, so $100 today might be $60 tomorrow (or $160),” Terence told me. He and Cory explained that you therefore have to be strategic about when you buy something with Bitcoin, unless you want to pay more than you might have just days before. Keeping money in Bitcoin isn’t the greatest idea, either, for obvious reasons. Instead, they recommend trying to exchange ordinary money for Bitcoin right before you make your transaction.
“Because the URL changes every few minutes, you could unwittingly log into a phishing site, deposit money, and never see it again.”
Phishing—fraudulently seeking personal and/or payment details—poses another risk. In a dark-web environment, according to Cory, “because the URL changes every few minutes, you could unwittingly log into a phishing site, deposit money, and never see it again. That happens many times every day.”
Other scams occasionally happen as well. Before escrow systems became commonplace, Marie once fell prey to a so-called “exit scam.” That’s when a dealer who plans to stop selling on a marketplace continues to take orders that they never plan to fulfill. Luckily, Marie’s order wasn’t very large; she only lost about $30 CAD. She also received less-than-stellar drugs on two occasions. Still, such instances were rare. “Except for those three times, I never got shorted, and the product ranged from good to excellent quality,” she noted.
Mercifully, the escrow system now largely keeps dealers from pulling these sorts of tricks (they don’t get paid until the product arrives, after all). Yet similar problems can still happen if you aren’t careful. Buying directly from an online dealer—as opposed to through one of the marketplaces—is generally inadvisable. There’s no escrow system when you do that and, therefore, no guarantee they’ll actually send you something.
On a mundane note, ordering online isn’t as immediate as purchasing in-person. If you’re physically dependent, you’ve got to remember to stock up pretty regularly to avoid withdrawal. Despite claiming to ship overnight, Cory explained, most dealers prefer to ship as many packages as possible at the same time. Vendors with fewer customers tend to wait longer. “I waited nine days for one dealer’s wares to arrive; another arrived two days after I placed the order,” he said. Still, that’s not too bad; nine days may be a very long time if you’re in withdrawal, but it’s manageable if you plan in advance.
No method of acquiring illegal substances is perfect. Still, some happen to be safer than others.
Cory—an American—tends to buy from sellers based in the United States. This helps keep orders from taking too long. International shipments, on the other hand, can spend two-to-four weeks in the mail. Terence, who is also in the US, wishes he’d known this before he ordered drugs online for the first time: some psychedelics from a Canadian dealer. Both he and his wife were very afraid they’d get caught. She even began having panic attacks when nothing arrived. After 14 excruciating days, they finally received their order of psychedelics.
No method of acquiring illegal substances is perfect. Still, some happen to be safer than others. Dark-web markets do have their risks. But reviews and forums give buyers more power, as does the escrow system. By offering so many options, these sites also just make it easier for psychonauts to explore what’s out there.
Some of us who use drugs are lucky enough to have physical access to a safe supply. For everyone else, dark-web marketplaces are a pretty reasonable idea.
*All names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.