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UEL researchers warn of a Dark Web market shift towards anaesthetic drug ketamine

Computing For Business

Computing academics say drug's ready availability must be addressed

Computing researchers at the University of East London (UEL) have discovered a worrying shift towards ketamine in the illicit Dark Web drug trade.

The pair discovered the trend during research into AlphaBay, the largest Dark Web marketplace in existence before it was shut down by the FBI in July 2017.

Dr Andres Baravalle and Dr Sin Wee Lee, senior computing lecturers at UEL, believe that their findings, to be presented as a report later this year, mark the first time the contents of the global AlphaBay market have been made public.

Dr Baravalle said, “We found ketamine to be popular in several markets, making up 15 per cent of the advertisements in the UK, 68 per cent in the Czech Republic, 58 per cent in France, 25 per cent in Germany, 36 per cent in the Netherlands, and 36 per cent in Switzerland.” 

Ketamine is an anaesthetic medication used on patients during surgery, and to prevent pain and discomfort during certain medical tests or procedures.

The pair, who previously carried out a detailed study of the Agora Dark Web market before it closed in 2015, say that the rise of ketamine is a new trend and could be indicative of what’s happening in current Dark Web markets. 

Dr Lee said, “Worldwide, ketamine represented about 10 per cent of the AlphaBay market. It’s used as a ‘come down’ drug, but can also be used as a date rape drug. Agora, which was the biggest market before it closed, didn’t show us this, but we saw it with AlphaBay which was 20 times bigger than Agora at its peak.”

In June 2014 ketamine changed from a class C to a class B controlled drug, with prison sentences ranging from five years for possession to 14 years for supplying. 

The UK’s NHS and the US Department of Health and Human Sciences both list ketamine as a commonly used date rape drug. 

Dr Lee added, “When one market closes, sellers migrate to other marketplaces, if they’re not already training on multiple markets, and they will take their supplies with them, which will include their stock of Ketamine.”

Dr Baravalle added, “Overall, the ketamine market was dominated by sellers from the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, about 80 per cent in total, but we also found that India came in as the fourth largest seller. In fact, 96 per cent of all their drug adverts were for ketamine, which isn’t something we found for any other country.”

The researchers also added their voice to the growing concern over the powerful opioid, Fentanyl, which is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

They found that the UK was Europe’s biggest AlphaBay market trader in the drug, with only the US and China exceeding the number of UK Fentanyl advertisements.

Dr Baravalle said, “This drug is a major cause of death in the USA, it’s being called part of the opioid crisis, and we’re seeing what looks like something similar emerging here in the UK. The role that Dark Web marketplaces are contributing to that situation should be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

In August 2017 it was reported that there had been 60 Fentanyl-related deaths recorded in the UK past eight months. 

Drugs and chemicals made up 45.64 per cent of the AlphaBay market, according to the UEL researchers. Of that, UK traders had the second highest number of drugs and chemical advertisements, making up 17.9 per cent of all advertisements, behind the US at 31.4 per cent.

The second most popular category was ‘fraud’, including advertisements for impersonation, deception, papers and accounts. This represented about 13 per cent of the market.

Dr Baravalle said, “We found 194 identity documents in the marketplace, ranging from scans and photos of passports and even four real passports, with a Danish passport being sold for $2,300 and a US passport being offered for $14,000.”

The pair also discovered an illicit trade in pistols, long-range guns, hand weapons, and ammunition, totalling 557 advertisements worth an estimated $3.6 million, with the biggest traders in pistols operating from the USA, UK, and Turkey. US sellers also came in top for long-range guns and hand weapons. 

The UEL researchers said there was an estimated $88 million worth of products on sale at the time AlphaBay was shut down. They valued total transactions at about $590 million per year. 

Dreammarket is now the largest active market on the Dark Web, with around 118,000 products.