Darknet market shutdown disrupts Russian illegal drug market

According to Russian charities, the decision by US and German authorities to block the Russian darknet drug market Hydra following the invasion of Ukraine has made life more dangerous for some users of illegal drugs.

Hydra, which was estimated to be worth more than $1.3 billion at the time of its closure, had dominated Russia’s economic underworld, enabling the purchase of illicit drugs using the Tor encryption system.

“On Hydra there were quality products,” one drug addict told the Moscow Times, asking that his name and age be withheld for security reasons.

His closing in April dramatically shook the Russian drug market, leading to a drop in the purity of illegal substances, more scams and the migration of drug sales to the Telegram messaging app, according to users and harm reduction experts risks.

Now the drug user said, “There’s a lot of mixture, and if it’s a white powder, we don’t know what’s in the substance.”

While the changes have given charities new opportunities to try to reach some of the millions of drug users in Russia and help alleviate the harmful effects of illegal drugs, there is evidence that the short-term health impact of many Russians was negative.

“Maybe it sounds a little strange, but in my opinion, Hydra was a good format [with] lots of information to help addicts take care of their health… how to take care of your psychological health, how to sleep, what vitamins to take,” said a spokesperson for Humanitarian Action, a leading independent charity for drug harm reduction near St. Petersburg. The Times of Moscow.

A drug lab in the trunk of a car confiscated by Moscow traffic police.
Sergei Vedyashkin / Moskva News Agency

“The administrators and moderators have made every effort to ensure that forum users can access this information. There is a motive here: the healthier the customer, the longer they will buy drugs,” the spokesperson said.

Founded in 2015, Hydra not only offered illegal drugs, but a diverse range of illicit services, including fake documents, counterfeit money, drug-making equipment, and cyberattacks. Especially in the major cities of Russia, it quickly became the dominant market for illegal narcotics.

Hydra specialized in same-day “dead drop” services in which users could anonymously buy drugs that would be delivered by workers who left “packages” (or “zakladka” in Russian) hidden in public places – such as behind a dumpster or under a loose stone – where the buyer would collect them .

Now that Hydra is offline, charities such as Humanitarian Action are working to ensure that the platform’s 3 million former users can still access vital information and assistance.

The addict said that in addition to a decrease in the quality of the substance, scams have become increasingly common following the closure of Hydra.

“There are people who put out some kind of advertisement, you write to them, you send them money and nothing happens. In my experience, Hydra was reliable enough. But now… addicts are doing everything they can for the next dose.

Now a member of the St Petersburg branch of Drugs Anonymous, the drug addict added that life has been harder for drug addicts since Western sanctions – although there is no evidence that Hydra’s closure is linked to the Western efforts to punish Moscow for its attack on Ukraine in February.

“We certainly cannot underestimate the kind of social impacts such as unemployment…and financial desperation for the average person…I think drug addiction is increasing every day for many reasons, including the introduction of penalties,” the user said.

Police seized Hydra’s servers in the United States and Germany and cryptocurrency wallets containing $25 million worth of bitcoins in a coordinated operation. The Cybercrime Center, which has worked in other former Soviet countries including Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, would have had more than 17 million customer accounts.

“The global threat of cybercrime and ransomware originating in Russia, and the ability of criminal leaders there to operate with impunity, is of deep concern to the United States,” said US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. said after crises.

However, not all experts agree that the dismantling of Hydra had a negative impact on Russian drug addicts.

“The harm reduction projects and addiction treatment on Hydra, in my opinion, was more of a marketing strategy than a real help for anyone – except school children who, before their first ecstasy use, were looking for information about the substance,” said a spokesman for the Andrei Rylkov Fund, a leading Moscow charity that provides assistance to drug addicts.

The "For a drug-free life!" event at Moscow's VDNKh exhibition center Sergei Vedyashkin / Moskva News Agency

The event “For a life without drugs!” event at the VDNKh exhibition center in Moscow
Sergei Vedyashkin / Moskva News Agency

Either way, one of the main knock-on effects of the shutdown has been an influx of Hydra users to the messaging app Telegram, which offers promises of anonymity and encrypted communications.

“Young people who use new psychological substances, such as synthetic psycho-stimulators, have mostly acquired them on Hydra. But now…these people don’t trust the new markets and have started using Telegram en masse,” the Humanitarian Action spokesperson said.

This change has forced humanitarian action and other harm reduction charities to change their strategies and advertise more on Telegram. Like Hydra, Telegram groups provide a platform to discuss issues such as health best practices, hospital transportation, and pet care for users who suffer from medical emergencies.

In some cases, charities have been able to reach drug users who were unaware of their services.

Another drug addict, who joined Drugs Anonymous’ drug rehabilitation program after a friend’s recommendation, said he had used Hydra’s services before.

The help and advice offered by Drugs Anonymous was much more effective, he said.

“Our group, which is LGBTQ friendly, meets three times a week…we have a group for Chemsex that opened a year ago,” he said. “On Zoom there is also a 24/7 room where you can go any time of the day or night…they will listen and support you.”

Russia news

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