Tempting though it may be to draw a correlation between the Covid-19 lockdown and dark web cannabis sales, Carnegie Mellon professor and dark web researcher Nicolas Christin urges caution. He points to the study's limitations—which the EMCDDA researchers acknowledge—such as the small number of markets included and the short time frame, which only captures the beginning of the global pandemic. "Their analysis is sound. The question I have is how complete is the data they worked from," says Christin, who has worked in collaboration with the EMCDDA in the past as a paid consultant. In particular, he notes that the study doesn't measure whether the bump in marijuana sales continued into later months of the Covid-19 lockdown. "Because we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, it’s hard to measure what’s a transient effect and a long-term effect," he adds. Christin does note, though, that Cannazon has been online for well over a year. That suggests its sudden sales growth likely isn't simply due to the usual cycle of a dark web market coming online and quickly gaining users before it's shut down by law enforcement .
Everything You Need to Know About the CoronavirusHere's all the WIRED coverage in one place, from how to keep your children entertained to how this outbreak is affecting the economy. On top of its analysis of sales data, the EMCDDA also trawled dark web markets and forums to see what drug dealers were saying about the pandemic's effects on their business, and found mixed messages. Some dealers apologized for delays in shipping and even warned that they would be pausing their operations. But many others advertised that they remained active during the pandemic, and even made special offers to customers like discounts, reducing the minimum order, and offering to give buyers their drugs via "dead drop" rather than shipping—hiding the drugs in a physical location and then sending the buyer a message about where to find them. Another dealer seemed to be using the possibility of shipping difficulties as a pitch to drive sales: "Times are very hard right now due to the current situation to do with Covid-19. so please everyone get your orders in as we dont know how long shipping is going to last," one dealer wrote on the dark web drug forum Dread.
If the coronavirus pandemic does create a lasting increase in marijuana or other drug sales, the EMCDDA's Groshkova argues that it may not end even when the pandemic does. She compares the shift to the advent of fentanyl in the drug economy a decade ago, which was linked in part to a shortage of heroin. Even when heroin became available again, fentanyl sales continued at the same rate. "Changes in drug markets due to temporary crises continue to cause behavioral shifts after the crisis is over," Groshkova says. After buyers get used to sourcing their pot on the dark web, in other words, some offline dealers could find that post-lockdown lives are a lot less busy.
More From WIRED on Covid-19
- How does a virus spread in cities? It’s a problem of scale
- The promise of antibody treatments for Covid-19
- “You’re Not Alone”: How one nurse is confronting the pandemic
- 3 ways scientists think we could de-germ a Covid-19 world
- FAQs and your guide to all things Covid-19
- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here