Grant Seaver, left, and Ryan Ainsworth. Credit Ainsworth and Seaver Families
Largely because of their potency, synthetic opioids have become the fastest-growing cause of the overdose epidemic, overtaking heroin in some areas. Just a few flakes of fentanyl can be fatal.
Their deadly efficiency also makes them ideal for sale online. Unlike heroin and prescription painkillers, which are relatively bulky, enough fentanyl to get nearly 50,000 people high can fit in a standard first-class envelope.
Dark net drug markets first gained attention six years ago with the rise of Silk Road, the online market created by Ross Ulbricht. Mr. Ulbricht was arrested and the site taken down in late 2013, but imitators quickly proliferated.
No federal agencies have released data on the prevalence of drugs ordered online. But the leading sites are doing far more business than the original Silk Road, according to findings by RAND Europe and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
The authorities say these markets account for a small proportion of the overall traffic in most drugs, including heroin and cocaine. But when it comes to synthetic opioids, many authorities tracking the traffic say that dark web markets have quickly assumed a more prominent and frightening role.
The dark web “has become such an important source of distribution for this sort of deadly drug,” said Kathryn Haun, who was a prosecutor in San Francisco until last month, and the Justice Department’s first Digital Currency Coordinator. “It has enabled distribution channels that previously didn’t exist.”
As of Friday, the leading dark net market, AlphaBay, had more than 21,000 listings for opioids and more than 4,100 for fentanyl and similar drugs, from dozens of dealers large and small. Many of those individual listings are like items in a catalog, representing an endless back-room supply of pills, powders and nasal sprays.
Just last month, the federal authorities announced charges against a six-person operation in Utah that was purchasing fentanyl in bulk from China on the dark web and then pressing the powder into pills and selling the pills on the dark web to users in the United States.
The authorities said the group had sold hundreds of thousands of these pills, often marketed as less dangerous drugs like Xanax and Oxycodone.
The alleged ringleader of the operation, Aaron Shamo, was identified by many AlphaBay users as the vendor known as Pharma-Master, who had 8,332 verified sales on the site.
The social forums on AlphaBay and other sites are filled with conversations about how potent the drugs are, with frequent mentions of trips that ended up in emergency room visits or blackouts.
“I was injecting slowly got 1/3rd of the hit in, next thing i know i wake up with 3 paramedics above me,” a user named AgentOrange 007 wrote in a forum posting on AlphaBay. “If i hadn’t been found because i was making a loud snoring sound (tongue rolled back in my throat) i’d be dead no doubt.”
Court documents show that in the last year, there have been more than two dozen arrests of American drug dealers who were operating significant operations buying or selling synthetic opioids online, most of which were tied to specific overdose deaths.
Dark Web Dealers
Like online auctioneers on eBay, drug dealers are using sites on the so-called dark web, like AlphaBay, to sell synthetic opioids to thousands of anonymous customers. Below are some popular vendors, with their AlphaBay screen names and sales figures from the site.
BTH-Overdose a.k.a. Blime-Sub
Age at arrest: 31
Popular product: Fentanyl HCL 98% PURE
“Best dope I’ve ever had. Worth the price by far. Be careful if you shoot.”
Age at arrest: 28
Popular product: RX Grade acrloylfentanyl spray
“just get my face burning and no buzz no warmth. nothing I like about fentanyl.”
Age at arrest: 25
Popular product: 0.125G Furanyl-Fentanyl (UNCUT)
“Pure product, rare chem. Good price!”
Still in operation
Popular product: 100 mg Fentanyl HCL 98% pure
“my tolerace is stupid high, i thought oh just another ordr of hcl.. but no, im so excited about this batch. so clean”
Still in operation
Popular product: 2 Grams China White Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl Mix
“Not quite sure what this is...knock out powder....quick shipping though.”
Age at arrest: 26
Cottonwood Heights, Utah
Popular product: Fentanyl - Roxy Oxycodone - 30mg X100
“Real Product. Fast discreet shipping.”