Despite the recent FBI shut down of the “Silk Road” – an online black market for illegal drugs and contract killings, amongst other things – the online drug trade is continuing to flourish, making it increasingly difficult to crack down on illegal drugs. Three popular online marketplaces, Black Market Reloaded, The Sheep Marketplace, and Atlantis, continue to operate, allegedly selling everything from marijuana to ecstasy.

Individuals who traffic drugs and use drugs use Bitcoins, an encrypted digital currency, to conduct these anonymous online transactions. Worse, because there are no guarantees of drug quality or purity, individuals who purchase drugs online are at increased risk for overdose and deadly side effects.

Silk Road & Bitcoins: Understanding the Online Drug Trade

bitcoin and drug sales police

Prior to its October closure, Silk Road was a digital marketplace where buyers and sellers of illegal products, typically drugs, could anonymously conduct transactions using encryption software like Tor, which concealed the users’ identity.

Silk Road users paid for drugs using the virtual currency Bitcoin, an encrypted digital currency designed to be as anonymous as cash. Individuals who wished to purchase drugs on Silk Road paid for these drugs using Bitcoins, which are managed through a digital wallet.

Unlike dollars or euros, Bitcoins are not insured; should a hard drive crash or hacker steal your digital wallet, your Bitcoins are gone as well. These risks did not deter drug users from loading up on Bitcoins to purchase drugs online.

In 2013, thanks in part to Bitcoin’s increasingly key role in the online drug trade, Bitcoin’s value skyrocketed from $22 to $226 per “coin”. And despite the FBI’s October closure of Silk Road, Bitcoins remain the main means for purchasing illegal drugs online.

Why the Online Drug Trade is Difficult to Control

Digital black markets, like Silk Road, are difficult to bring down because they operate in the “deep web”, a “virtual Wild West” that is not indexed by search engines. Even the FBI has not been able to crack security encryption software like Tor, which protects the identity of individuals who buy and sell drugs online through sites like Silk Road, Blakc Market Reloaded and The Sheep Marketplace.

The FBI was able to bring down Silk Road because its owner made mistakes in operational security and posted to public forums using the same user name – “Altoid” – that he used on Silk Road. If these mistakes had not been made, analysts suspect that Silk Road would still be alive and flourishing.

Silk Road’s closure is not deterring other black market websites from operating. In the wake of Silk Road’s closure, other online drug sites are actively competing for Silk Road’s former buyers and sellers. One black market website, dubbed ‘Atlantis’, even launched a marketing campaign, complete with YouTube videos, aimed at capturing new users. Atlantis, which launched in March 2013, claims to have processed more than half a million dollars in its first three months of operation.

Atlantis’ alleged founder, speaking anonymously, said the brazen viral marketing campaign is designed to “bring attention to the site and bring our vendors more buyers. Law enforcement is going to be aware of us (and probably already is) regardless of the way we choose to put our product out there.”

Dangers of Using Drugs Purchased Online

While the anonymity of purchasing drugs online may be appealing at first, when it comes to illegal drugs sold through black market websites, there are no guarantees of purity or quality. Individuals who purchase illegal drugs online are at risk for overdose and other dangerous side effects.