Pubdate: Sun, 11 Jun 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Nathaniel Popper


Opioid Dealers Embrace the Dark Web to Send Deadly Drugs by Mail

Anonymous online sales are surging, and people are dying. Despite
dozens of arrests, new merchants - many based in Asia - quickly pop

As the nation's opioid crisis worsens, the authorities are confronting
a resurgent, unruly player in the illicit trade of the deadly drugs,
one that threatens to be even more formidable than the cartels.

The internet.

In a growing number of arrests and overdoses, law enforcement
officials say, the drugs are being bought online. Internet sales have
allowed powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl - the
fastest-growing cause of overdoses nationwide - to reach living rooms
in nearly every region of the country, as they arrive in small
packages in the mail.

The authorities have been frustrated in their efforts to crack down on
the trade because these sites generally exist on the so-called dark
web, where buyers can visit anonymously using special browsers and
make purchases with virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

The problem of dark web sales appeared to have been stamped out in
2013, when the authorities took down the most famous online
marketplace for drugs, known as Silk Road. But since then, countless
successors have popped up, making the drugs readily available to tens
of thousands of customers who would not otherwise have had access to

Among the dead are two 13-year-olds, Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth,
who died last fall in the wealthy resort town of Park City, Utah,
after taking a synthetic opioid known as U-47700 or Pinky. The boys
had received the powder from another local teenager, who bought the
drugs on the dark web using Bitcoin, according to the Park City police

"It's unimaginable that Grant could gain access to a drug like Pinky
so easily, and be gone so quickly, poof," said Jim Seaver, Grant's
father. "The pain and brutality of this tragedy is crippling."

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.

In late February, a man in South Carolina was accused of receiving
more than three kilograms of fentanyl ordered on the dark net - or
enough to kill 1.5 million adults, given that just two milligrams is a
lethal dose.

A few weeks later in New Jersey, authorities arrested Chukwuemeka
Okparaeke, who allegedly went by the screen name of Fentmaster on
AlphaBay. He had received two kilograms of fentanyl from an address in
Hong Kong, according to a criminal complaint.

Then in April, a Cleveland man, Alec Steinberger, 21, was arrested and
accused of receiving a package of furanyl fentanyl that he was
preparing to sell on the streets. He is said to have texted a
19-year-old who was helping him distribute the drugs to warn about
their strength.

"Bro I did it last night any my pupils got so small they disappeared
and then I was nodding for 18 hrs," the text said, according to the

When the 19-year-old tried the drugs, he overdosed and

Mr. Okparaeke, Mr. Steinberger and Mr. Shamo have all pleaded not
guilty. Lawyers for the men had no comment on their cases.

Law enforcement officials investigating these cases say that public
documents underrepresent the number of cases involving the dark web
because many court documents don't mention the online sources of the

And many cases - including the death last year of the musician Prince
from a fentanyl overdose - are still being investigated because of the
relatively recent advent of the phenomenon.

"It has come to play a key role in the overdose crisis," said Tim
Plancon, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration in Kentucky,
Michigan and Ohio, states at the epicenter of the overdose crisis.
"It's expanded beyond just your traditional drug smuggling and
trafficking. There is just a lot more involved with it when you are
dealing with folks on the dark web with virtual currencies."

The United States is not the only country dealing with an influx of
mail-order synthetic opioids. Canada and several European countries
have also made recent arrests of suspects accused of being major
online drug dealers responsible for multiple deaths.

But the numbers are particularly staggering in America. In 2015, the
last year for which national data is available, fentanyl and similar
drugs killed 9,580 people, or 73 percent more than 2014. The number of
deaths rose even faster last year in areas that have released figures,
such as Ohio and New Hampshire. Over all, deaths from drug overdoses
are soaring in the United States, and most likely exceeded 59,000 last

Authorities say that most of the illicit supply of synthetic opioids
is produced in labs in Asia and especially China, where many of the
precursor chemicals are either legal or easier to procure.

Latin American drug cartels are also getting synthetic opioids from
Asia and moving them into the United States. But the operational ease
of sending the drugs through the mail gives the method obvious appeal
for Chinese producers, many of whom are technologically skilled enough
to set up their own dark web shops.

One of the most frequently reviewed vendors of synthetic opioids on
AlphaBay goes by the screen name BenzoChems. The vendor has shared
online videos of his operations in China.

In a series of messages exchanged on AlphaBay's internal messaging
system, BenzoChems, who declined to provide his real name, said he had
found that routing packages through Hong Kong, and then through the
United States Postal Service, was the most efficient method of transit.

Some Chinese producers also list synthetic opioids for sale on
websites on the ordinary internet, without requiring users to navigate
to them through a special dark web browser. But most of the recent
criminal complaints in the United States appear to involve drugs
procured through markets that exist only on the dark web.

BenzoChems said that he had sold his products on ordinary websites,
but those sites were quickly shut down by the authorities.

Dark web technology was originally developed by American intelligence
agencies to allow for encrypted communication. News organizations,
including The New York Times, use it to receive story tips from
vulnerable sources.

But the illicit markets enabled by the dark web have made stopping the
flow of deadly drugs much more complicated than it was when the
authorities were trying to stop earlier waves of drug overdoses.

"We could give you a pretty good idea of the drug traffickers in town
who can order kilos from Mexico - that's a known commodity," said
Joseph M. Pinjuh, the chief of the organized crime task force in the
United States attorney's office in Cleveland. "What's harder to track
is the person ordering this from his grandmother's basement."

Lawmakers have tried to attack the problem by introducing legislation
in Congress that would tighten the requirements on information
gathered by the Postal Service. Last month, at a Senate hearing on the
problem, Postal Service officials said they were working to collect
information on more packages coming from China.

In recent months, though, the number of listings for fentanyl on
AlphaBay and other dark web sites has been rising steadily.

Ms. Haun, the former federal prosecutor in San Francisco, said the
tools that enabled dark web commerce made it very unlikely that the
expanding traffic would be curtailed anytime soon.

"It's only going to increase, and increase the types of communities
and markets that might not have had as easy access to it before," she
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