Online drug trafficking on the rise, police need resources to respond

A growing trend of online encrypted drug dealing needs more attention, according to a new B.C. study. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward photo

A growing trend of online encrypted drug dealing needs more attention by police, a new study by British Columbia researchers says.

Richard Frank, an associate professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said the encrypted markets are attractive to buyers and sellers for lower prices, contactless transactions and a large variety of drugs available.

Frank, who is the director of the International Cybercrime Research Centre, said his research group analyzed eight of the largest so-called cryptomarkets between June 2021 and January 2022.

The study showed almost 17 tonnes of drug products were trafficked for $234.7 million in eight markets, with the most popular drugs being stimulants, cannabis, opioids and benzodiazepines.

Frank said the first cryptomarket was identified around 2010, and that it “set the example that others have been following in terms of business model and security and profit-wise.”

While police work to shut down sites whenever possible, he said it has been “like whack-a-mole” ever since.

“You shut down one (and) two or three spring up. Some disappear on their own, but still, you shut some down and they’re simply replaced,” he said. “This problem is growing, but it’s not for a lack of effort on the law enforcement side. It’s more that this is just becoming a bit more established.”

The study revealed drug revenues for these online markets had increased by about 80 per cent from 2013 to 2021.

It also found that larger quantities and less expensive items were more likely to be shipped globally, while others were only shipped domestically, likely due to a perceived increase in risk with global delivery.

Shu Liu, the SFU researcher responsible for collecting and analyzing data, said while the cryptomarkets grow, some aspects of the trade may become less visible, such as if vendors choose to move to invite-only chat platforms.

“It can be difficult for law enforcement agencies to clamp down on international cryptomarket drug trade, but developing and testing new tools and techniques will increase the chances of illicit imports being intercepted by authorities as they go through the mail,” Liu said in a news release.

Frank and Liu are part of a research team studying the illegal activity for the Office of Crime Reduction and Gang Outreach, which wants data on the size and scope of the online problem to justify the need for more funding to combat the problem.

“They knew the platforms existed, but they didn’t have specifics,” Frank said in an interview Monday.

The office of crime reduction, which is under B.C.’s Public Safety Ministry, operates $1 million in annual funding for university-led research that can be applied to policing operations and programs related to public safety.

Frank said researchers have already studied how some of the vendors ship and hide products in the mail system, and they are interested in studying mail carrier package inspection.

He said the group had been working with the office of crime reduction on the idea, but it stalled for bureaucratic reasons.

“We are interested to talk to Canada Post, and other postal services like FedEx, to try to understand how they are inspecting packages, (to determine) what some of the telltale signs of envelopes with drugs in them are so they can maybe add that to their list of screening,” he said. “So, hopefully that will happen.”

– Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press


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