Drug trading on the dark net generally elicits images of sinister underworld figures, dimly lit rooms, locked doors and perilous cloak-and-dagger dealings -- a veritable "house of horrors". But according to one leading dark web researcher, the reality is quite different.
In fact, Australian criminologist James Martin believes the dark net has significant potential to promote a more responsible drug culture and lessen the violence associated with street dealing and criminal gangs.
"The conventional illicit drug trade is pretty dangerous and in the absence of a legal, well-regulated drug market, it looks like the dark net actually offers a lot of potential benefits both to users and dealers, and to the general public," he told HuffPost Australia.
The dark net is not actually all that dark."
A senior lecturer in criminology at Macquarie University, Martin will be presenting his subversive take on the online drug market at TedxMelbourne's 'Rebels, Revolutionaries & Us' next Tuesday, September 19.
So just what is the dark net, and how are people using it to buy illegal drugs?
What is the...
Surface web (or clear net) - "That's basically any part of the Internet that you can access through a search browser (i.e. it comes up in a Google search), so you're talking media websites, your Hotmail or whatever it may be."
Deep web - "Beneath the surface web, you've got the deep web. This is the vast majority of the Internet, and it's basically anything that isn't immediately accessible through a search browser, such as Intranets. It's not necessarily anything nefarious."
Dark net (or anonymous web) - "Beneath that, you've got the dark net or the TOR network... this is a different thing entirely. It's an encrypted subset of the Internet that's only accessible through a TOR browser... Once you start using this browser, you can access a whole lot of different websites that you can't access otherwise -- dot onion sites. You can also send, host and receive information without revealing your IP address, so you can't be monitored by the authorities."
Because it's almost untraceable, the dark net is used by many parts of the criminal underworld, including by terror groups and for exchanging child exploitation material, illegal firearms and stolen credit cards, but the bulk of the people on it are seeking illegal drugs.
To access the dark net, users download an encrypted web browser -- the TOR network being the most common -- which provides access to illicit websites. These sites are protected, so they won't appear in a Google search or through typing a URL into a regular web browser.
Users' data and IP addresses are encrypted, making them very difficult to trace.
But researchers actually know more about the types, quantities and price of drugs sold on the dark net than they do of physical illicit drug supply lines.
"One of the weird things about the dark net is that it's not actually all that dark," Martin said.
"These sites are publicly available and anyone can download TOR and see what they look like."
For example, we know that cannabis is the most common dark net drug in Australia, accounting for a quarter of all sales, followed by prescription drugs (20 percent) and ecstasy (16 percent). Methamphetamines such as 'ice' account for 12 percent of Australia's online drug trades, while heroin makes up just three percent.
Illicit drugs are paid for using bitcoin or another encrypted currency, and mailed through the post.
But despite this accessibility, law enforcement agencies have found it extremely difficult to crack down on the online trade.
"Conventional anti-drug operations usually revolve around things like buy-and-bust operations where you've got an uncover police officer who pretends to be a customer and once an exchange takes place then they can affect an arrest," Martin explained.
"That's a really simple but very efficient kind of police operation when you think of it from an evidence perspective.
"You've got the offender, you've got the drugs, you've got the money, and usually you've got some sort of form of surveillance as well and that makes a very compelling package that you can present in court."
But on the dark net, this kind of police operation isn't possible.
Both the communications and the financial transactions of drug deals are encrypted, and buyers and users need never meet in person.
The drugs are commonly sold in small quantities and are frequently mailed across international borders, making tracing them through the postal service both costly and impracticable.
"For a transnational policing operation to take police -- so say someone buying drugs from the UK to Australia –- that requires a lot of international police cooperation and law enforcement. It would be difficult to justify the kind of expense associated with that for small quantities of illicit drugs," Martin explained.
The criminologist has been researching the dark net drug trade since it first made news headlines with the establishment of the Silk Road in 2011.
Since then, he's watched the disintegration of major drug suppliers -- most notably, Silk Road in 2013 -- as policed were able to trace them through real-world links.
But instead of the life imprisonment of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht scaring dealers away from the dark net, large-scale syndicates have been replaced by smaller, harder-to-trace operations. Martin estimates that Australia alone has around 150 online traders.
So how can a more accessible illegal drug store where dealers operate with a large degree of impunity create a less harmful illicit drug trade?
According to Martin, there are three potential benefits: reducing the violence of a bloody drugs war; promoting safer drug-taking practices through online forums; and supplying purer drugs, with fewer potentially deadly adulterants.
The decreased potential for violence stems from the anonymity of the Internet -- not only are the dealers' locations concealed from police, they're also hidden from each other. This makes revenge killings and drive-by shootings impossible.
"What the dark net does is basically protect people from that kind of violence, because no one knows where anyone is physically located," Martin explained.
By cutting out the street dealers and other middle-men, Martin believes the online dark net trade can also reduce the involvement of organised crime in the drug trade -- "or at least change the composition of the groups involved".
This would have flow-on benefits for the wider community, but creating a less armed, less violent society.
Listen to the full interview with James Martin below.
But Martin also sees potential benefits for the users sourcing their illicit drugs on the dark net, who Martin says are generally relatively tech-savvy, affluent and well-educated -- and eager to promote a culture of harm reduction.
Despite several recent high-profile arrests and large-scale drug seizures, a recent report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission revealed that law enforcement operations are having almost no impact on the availability, price and purity of drugs like crystal methamphetamine ('ice').
This failure of police to end the drug war has lead to calls for an approach based around harm reduction, rather than punitive measures -- an approach facilitated by the dark net.
"All of the cryptomarkets and dark net marketplaces that we see have very active discussion forums with a large percentage of that discussion centred around things like safer forms of drug use," Martin said.
He points to the original Silk Road website, which featured a weekly Q&A session by an anonymous doctor, paid in bitcoins to answer users questions about how to use illicit drugs more safely.
Moreover, because of the eBay-esque rating and feedback system employed by dark net drug traffickers, the drugs are generally of higher quality and less likely to contain potentially deadly adulterants.
"That can be dangerous as well," Martin cautioned.
"If you've got, for example, very strong ecstasy pills floating around there's a higher potential for overdose. But people typically have a better knowledge of the composition of their drugs (online)."
Whatever the benefits and the drawbacks, it's clear that despite law enforcements' best efforts, the dark net drugs trade isn't going anywhere any time soon.
The industry is already worth hundreds of millions of dollars globally, and is growing fast.
Australia is the one of the highest rates of dark net drug dealers per capita in the world, beaten only by the Netherlands. More than a quarter (27 percent) of the world's dark net 'ice' trade is sold through Australian cryptomarket dealers.
The 2016 Global Drug Survey found that eight percent of Australian respondents (around 80 percent of whom report using illicit drugs) have bought drugs off the dark net.
"There will always be that physical market, but if current trends continue, then we're going to see very significant increases in dark net drug trading," Martin concluded.