Wired Weed: The Online Marijuana Market


The infamous Boston Blaze tour. This is a ritual I had heard of many times from a close friend. He highly recommended the experience. It is self-explanatory, consisting of a weekend in Boston smoking weed in a series of scenic places. Last month, I finally got to see it in action. I do not smoke weed, but I enjoyed tagging along with my less sober friends. Given the fact that I do not buy drugs, it is not difficult to conclude that I have no idea how to obtain them. That is why I was completely shocked by an exchange I witnessed on the Boston Blaze tour. We were in Boston Common one evening and my friends were passing around a joint when a random man stopped by and asked, “Where can I get some of that?” Without missing a beat, one of my friends pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to the guy: “Bro, just check out this website and you’ll find someone — they deliver to you.” I was impressed, to say the least. Weed delivered to your door like a pizza or an Amazon Prime order? All I knew about drug distribution came from my high school friends and movies. My friends would get weed from other students at school, and movie characters would get it from sketchy people in sketchier alleyways. I had not considered that buying drugs online was even possible. As it turns out, drug proliferation has become a highly automated process in a number of avenues, which has made a wide range of drugs accessible. Just like any other social trend following economic laws of supply and demand, the automation of drug proliferation is the natural progression for an expanding market. 

The definitions I present can be found in an article published in the International Journal of Drug Policy by M.J Barratt and J. Aldridge. In the internet, the part of it that we are familiar with is the “surface web”, which can be accessed by search engines. The rest of the internet is referred to as the “deep web.” Furthermore, a small subset of the deep web is referred to as the “hidden web,” which can only be accessed through “anonymizing software.” The market for drugs exists both on the internet that we are familiar with and have access to – the surface web – as well as on cryptomarkets that function within the realm of the hidden web. On the hidden web, cryptomarkets have facilitated the distribution of drugs, and on the surface web, social media sites have played a similar role. Unsurprisingly, these marketplaces are closely related and hold significant influence each other. Many of the sales on cryptomarkets (about 51% of these sales) indicate wholesale transactions. This means that those buying drugs on these hidden online markets are not simply purchasing them for personal or shared use, but for profitable resale. This further implies that online drug sales contribute to general greater drug proliferation. In other words, the automation of the drug sale industry has allowed people to purchase drugs for personal use as well as for resale and proliferation. 

Drug sales through cryptomarkets are unique compared to online sales with which we are familiar. While most of us have logged into our Amazon accounts, added products to our cart, and paid with a credit card; however, shopping on cryptomarkets is a bit of a different ball game. In order to access cryptomarkets, we would require specific software and in order to make purchases, and we would require crypto currencies, such as bitcoin. Furthermore, sales on these markets are not as straightforward. Cryptomarkets have an escrow system in place in order to protect buyers and sellers from being scammed, holding the money in limbo until the transaction is finalized by both buyer and seller. Drug sales through social media are less neat and tidy. Through this interface, we see that sellers advertise their products on sites like Instagram and even Grindr, generally conducting sales in person. 

Though these systems may seem surprising, the progression leading to this state was likely inevitable. There is a significant and steady demand for drugs as well as people willing to supply them. Technology has provided the tools for more efficient transactions, and so the sale and diffusion of drugs has become largely automated. The reason that the market for drugs has experienced a drastic shift from face-to-face transactions to online sales is that the benefits of online sales outweigh the detriments. In all, this new system is more efficient, effective, and reliable. This change in interface is a logical response to supply, demand, and technological capabilities.

Why is it that these online systems are more efficient? For one, they tend to offer higher quality products. This is due to the fact that people can and do evaluate sellers. They leave ratings and comments on sellers’ profiles about the quality of products, the delivery, and overall satisfaction with the process. Transactions through this market facilitate trust through the escrow process described earlier. Another benefit of this system is that it makes transactions safer. People do not need to meet dealers face-to-face and put themselves in the way of potential harm. Through this method, they can have products delivered directly to an address of their choice and pick it up at their convenience. Though this system has many advantages for those marketing and purchasing drugs, it also has risks. Even though the chance of face-to-face violence is reduced through this method, people become susceptible to the risk of “doxxing” or having their personal information revealed, leaving them vulnerable to exposure and blackmail. Additionally, though online reviews are mostly effective at ensuring product quality, ordering drugs online leaves both sellers and buyers exposed to risks of scamming because neither can ensure that a product was actually shipped or delivered – they have to trust each other.

Selling drugs on the surface web through social media has its own pros and cons. One of the most significant benefits is shared by both the buyer and seller. This is that people have the opportunity to choose with whom to interact. Each party involved has the ability to chat with the other before they meet and set mutual agreements on how the sale will go through. For example, Princeton professor Rachael Ferguson, in a recent paper, cites interviews with people who engage in this market interface. Since those who sell drugs are always at risk of legal repercussions, they take precautions with whom they choose as customers. One weed dealer described how he “distance[s] himself from shitty customers” by watching out for “sketchy” behavior and strange messages. Another advantage to this interaction is that people are less likely to be caught in a deal considering that transactions often take place at an office or home, and the fact that they are planned in advance. Overall, this system provides a lot of opportunity to plan and control the situation. The major disadvantage of this system is that it leaves traces online. Both dealers and buyers have to take precautions to make sure that they do not put themselves at risk of being caught. If they are caught, they are more likely to face repercussions due to the online documentation of evidence of their involvement. 

How can we conclude that the benefits of this automated industry outweigh the detriments? It is evident in the system’s success, persistence, and growth. As Ferguson put it, “With every round of busts, the marketplace operators, vendors, and buyers learn from the mistakes of others and find new ways to protect themselves.” Clearly, the benefits of this system outweigh its costs considering that people are willing to incur risks in order to reap the benefits. People have found that this automated system supplies better products, ensures greater security, and facilitates increased efficiency. All of these factors indicate that this automated market should continue to evolve and expand. In the end, this development is a reflection of the market’s needs: finding a way to blaze with the least effort required. ﹥