Last month, a California nurse was charged with selling more than 20,000 prescription pills — and making more than $350,000 — on the Dark Web, which (naturally) inspired me to find out, theoretically speaking, how much money I could make selling drugs on the same perplexing platform.
The Dark Web has always confused the fuck out of me. I once watched, bemused, as a tech-savvy colleague bought a gram of coke on the network. As you can imagine, this only perpetuated the prevailing notion in my mind that the Dark Web serves primarily as a hotbed for crime, which is somewhat true. In 2016, researchers analyzed 2,723 websites on the Dark Web and found that 57 percent (more than half!) hosted illegal material.
That said, the Dark Web is also frequently misunderstood. In fact, it was originally developed by the U.S. military so its intelligence agencies could exchange information anonymously. The only reason the military proceeded to make the Dark Web public was because its agencies needed a much larger network of computers and online information to help obscure their own secret messages. Then, when Bitcoin was invented, which enabled two parties to conduct a trusted (but completely anonymous) transaction, the Dark Web began to flourish as an illegal marketplace, primarily for buying and selling drugs.
“If you’ve used eBay, you can use these markets,” says Melbourne-based writer Eileen Ormsby, author of Silk Road and The Darkest Web, and someone who has spent every day for the past six years traversing the Dark Web. “The thing with the online markets is, not only do you not have to meet anyone face-to-face, but every person who’s selling [drugs], you can check on their feedback. They get rated out of five stars. Not only that, but the market itself holds the money in escrow — so you pay the market, the market holds that money and it only gets released by the buyer when the drugs turn up in the mail.”
It’s important to understand, though, that not everything on the Dark Web is illegal (and accessing the Dark Web certainly isn’t illegal): You can also join book clubs, prepare for the End Times and even engage in plain old social media.
In other words, the Dark Web is simply an umbrella term that describes a portion of the internet hidden from regular search engines, like Google. As a result, in order to access it, you have to download an anonymizing browser called Tor, which basically renders your IP address unidentifiable and untraceable. (For a full guide on accessing — and using — the Dark Web, check this out.)
Now, let’s get back to my initial question: How much money could I theoretically make selling drugs on the Dark Web? First, Ormsby explains that drugs are by far the most popular (and profitable) items on the Dark Web, followed by digital goods, like stolen credit card information, stolen personal information and fake IDs. “People all over the world want drugs, and they want high-quality drugs,” she says. “That’s what the Dark Web supplies.”
So, as one does, I asked Ormsby to take me through some current listings — she was apparently already on Wall Street Market, which is the second-largest marketplace on the Dark Web: “It’s got 7,665 drug listings, and they’re broken down into all these different types — you’ve got cannabis, MDMA, benzos, opiates, ecstasy, steroids and so forth. If I look at this first page, what we’ve got here is 10 hits of LSD for $40. We’ve got $2.30 for a gram of bud. We’ve got $70 a gram for blue magic pure cocaine, but then we’ve also got $29 a gram for something called pink cocaine. €2.80 for a gram of speed. I mean, it’s really a matter of going through and having a look at all these things.”
More broadly speaking, Ormsby adds that, in the U.S., the price of Dark Web drugs is, more or less, the same as the street price — but she emphasizes that they tend to be higher quality. In places like Australia, though, where drugs are generally harder to come by, she says that those on the Dark Web are both cheaper and higher quality than their street-sold brethren.
All of which means the amount of money I could theoretically make by selling drugs on the Dark Web could range anywhere from small-time drug dealer to El-fucking-Chapo, depending on how active and involved I were to become.
Now, as a quick aside, according to a 2017 blog post by Dark Web traveller Olivia Rowley, digital goods on the dark web are much less profitable. Personal information, like someone’s social security number, date of birth and full name, reportedly sell for only between $1 and $8. Rowley also mentions that she sometimes sees bulk discounts on these items. Meanwhile, you can apparently buy a digital scan of a U.S. passport for between $5 and $65. (You can see, now, why drugs are, by and large, the biggest money-maker on the Dark Web.)
Obviously, though, there are some cons to selling drugs on the Dark Web — namely, the fact that you might get arrested by federal authorities for selling 20,000 prescription pills. According to Ormsby, selling drugs on the Dark Web might even be more dangerous — in terms of getting hit by the book, at least — than selling drugs IRL. “The amount of resources that law enforcement throws at finding people on the Dark Web is completely disproportionate to the actual amount of drugs that are sold,” she explains. “They don’t put anywhere near as many resources into bringing down the cartels that are out there with their guns and drugs on the streets than they do to bring down the computer nerds who are selling drugs online.”
“It’s a huge business — it’s hundreds of millions of dollars,” Ormsby continues, speaking about the drug economy on the Dark Web. “But that’s a tiny, tiny drop in the overall drug market business, which is trillions of dollars.”
Well, that’s just great.
Now how am I supposed to start my retirement fund?