Illegal Dark Web Marijuana Sales Spiked When Coronavirus Pandemic Began

The coronavirus pandemic caused a spike in one surprising corner of the economy: illegal online marijuana sales. According to a report by Wired, the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak correlated with a spike in marijuana trading on the "dark web." The data came primarily from Europe, and experts are hesitant to draw specific conclusions from the sales spike.

An analysis of dark web marijuana sales in Europe was published by the Journal of Addiction Medicine back in May. The data was collected by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, tracking several sites known to host illegal marijuana sales online. It showed that purchases skyrocketed when the pandemic first began, rising by at least 30%. Some analysts suspected this represented stockpiling and panic-buying among regular marijuana users — much like the people hoarding toilet paper and cleaning supplies in the U.S. Others guessed that it might be an attempt to maintain responsible social distance by avoiding in-person drug dealers.

The study focused on the online markets Cannazon, Versus and Agartha. All three sites saw 11,036 orders for dark web cannabis in January of 2020, and then 14,289 orders in March. The growth correlated with the timeline of the coronavirus outbreak, and in some countries, stay-at-home orders as well. Some analysts wondered if the newly sedentary lifestyle encouraged new or lapsed marijuana users to take up the drug while stuck at home.

"It's possible that buyers were trying to stock up for the weeks to come, or there’s just a larger group of cannabis users discovering online as a convenient distribution channel when social contact is limited and they have limited means to reach out to their usual dealer," said EMCDDA principal scientific analyst Teodora Groshkova.

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The data collected shows that as demand for online marijuana orders grew, the price dropped, and overall revenue was actually lower. This indicates that the purchases made were large, wholesale orders, where a bulk discount was applied. Cannazon, for example, took in a reported $2.1 million in January, and only $1.7 million in March, when the sales were much higher.

At this same time, the sale of small 10-gram amounts dropped, while the sale of kilogram amounts rose. Groshkova suggested that a fear of scarcity also played a big role in this trend. "When the offline opportunities for resale is limited, these people are not so interested to get hold of this type of larger amount," Groshkova said. "They see that they're going to have difficulty shifting these products."