UK organised crime gangs profit most in Europe from darknet drugs sales – report

Organised crime groups based in the UK generate more money from selling illegal drugs on the dark web than in any other country in Europe, according to the EU’s drugs agency.

Darknet vendors in the UK were estimated to have sold drugs worth more than £24m with a total weight of 2,825kg in 2017-18.

Although they did not generate as much revenue, dark web vendors in Germany were estimated to have traded a higher quantity of drugs, 3,153kg, worth over £16m. The disparity could reflect price variations and the differences in types of drugs offered.

However, the true figures were almost certainly much higher. Including on the darknet, drug users across the EU spend more than £26bn on illicit substances each year.

A number of online marketplaces where drugs are sold have been closed in recent years by international law enforcement agencies, but the dark web markets ecosystem has proved resilient and take-downs did not significantly impact revenues, the 2019 EU drug markets report noted.

The report said the number of online stores run by single vendors had grown in response, and the market was expected to continue to both fragment and migrate to encrypted communication apps such as Discord and Telegram.

It is estimated that the number of people in England who buy drugs on the dark web has more than doubled since 2014 amid similar rises in other countries. Darknet vendors in the UK sell mainly cocaine and cannabis, along with stimulants such as MDMA and dissociatives including ketamine.

However, a number of vendors in the UK also sell fentanyl, a powerful painkiller 50 times stronger than heroin. Some UK-based fentanyl vendors recruit criminals in other countries where they enjoy large customer bases to sell the dangerous opioid on their behalf, according to the report.

The use of postal and parcel services to transport drugs has expanded rapidly in the past two years, posing added dilemmas for law enforcement agencies.

Dr James Nicholls, from Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the report showed that international law enforcement agencies were finding it “almost impossible” to deal with the expansion and innovation of the illicit drug market.

“Research cited in the report shows that when one darknet market is taken down another takes its place, having no effect on the overall scale of the drug market,” he said.

“Law enforcement are playing ‘whack-a-mole’ and it is not working. We need a different approach. The only way to undermine organised crime, and to reduce the enormous harm that illegal drug markets create, is to legally regulate drug supply.”

The director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which compiled the report, said it represented “a clear wake-up call for policymakers” to address an “increasingly global, joined-up and digitally enabled” rapidly growing drug market.

“Hyper-production of drugs, within and beyond EU borders, is leading to high availability of natural and synthetic substances,” Alexis Goosdeel said. “This means that consumers now have access to a diverse range of highly potent and pure products at affordable prices.”


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