Crackdown on prescription opioids followed by increase in ‘dark web’ purchases, study finds

Jeremy B White
Tablets of Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio: REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Illicit online opioid purchases surged after the government cracked down on prescription painkillers, a new study has found.

With the United States grappling with a metastasising opioid addiction crisis, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 2014 tightened restrictions around drugs containing hydrocodone. The change made it more difficult to obtain and refill prescriptions for the widely user painkiller.

Many of the people who have become addicted to opioids in recent years have first developed a dependency on the drugs after being legally prescribed painkillers. Law enforcement officials were seeking to dam that outlet to addiction.

But in seeking to cut off access to opioids, the DEA instead pushed users into the online black market, a study published in medical journal the BMJ suggests.

In the years since the DEA cracked down, the share of opioids sourced through 31 different “cryptomarkets” - sales portals on the encrypted “dark web” that allow anonymous online transactions - doubled, the study’s authors found.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Scott Hadland of Boston Medical Center’s unit for pediatrics and addiction and Northeastern University associate professor Leo Beletsky warned that overdoses from illicit drug use were soaring as opioid prescription rates fell, suggesting that the addiction epidemic was increasingly being fed by “less expensive, more available, and highly potent illicit market alternatives” like heroin and fentanyl.

They warned that the study’s findings reflected the government’s misguided reliance on law enforcement, rather than on prevention and treatment programmes. Donald Trump's strategy for combatting opioid usage has included tougher penalties, with Mr Trump advocating sentencing drug dealers to death.

“Policies that suppress access to prescription opioids without reducing demand are known to fail”, Mr Hadland and Mr Beletsky wrote.

The day before the study’s release, a dark web drug trafficker who went by the moniker “OxyMonster” pleaded guilty in Florida to conspiring to distribute drugs and commit money laundering. The Department of Justice touted the outcome in a press release describing a sweeping collaboration between different law enforcement agencies.

But Mr Hadland and Mr Beletsky cautioned that devoting resources to criminal investigations of dark web drug markets would to little to address the underlying causes.

“When large cryptomarkets are shut down, the number of online sellers drops temporarily but then rapidly recovers and marketplaces fragment”, they wrote. “Attempts to disrupt darknet sales are therefore likely to cause an endless game of ‘whack-a-mole’ in which new cryptomarkets surface to replace old ones, and sellers and buyers simply migrate from one site to another”.