Cryptomarkets are illicit online platforms which are used to sell drugs, operating in the open thanks to encryption and anonymization technology such as the Tor network, Bitcoin and PGP communication. Cryptomarkets have been growing since 2011, with yearly revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Relatively little is known about cryptomarket drug vendors, with most studies limited to surface-level metrics such as product availability and sales numbers. Research on the motivations of cryptomarket vendors has typically assumed economic calculations of risk and reward, while leaving out the noneconomic motivations.
Martin et al. interviewed 13 cryptomarket vendors by email and instant messaging, recruited from an announcement on a news site popular to that group. An elaborated interview protocol established certainty as to the credentials of the research team, with communications secured via encryption tools such as PGP. Vendors sold a wide array of illicit drugs (cannabis, MDMA, cocaine, LSD) and predominantly operated from North America or Central and Western Europe. Two respondents disclosed a yearly income greater than 100,000 USD, two others of less than 10,000 USD, with the remainder of the group taking an amount in-between. For reasons of anonymity, basic demographic information was not sought or collected.
The study suggests that for most participants, the pathway to selling on cryptomarkets was fairly straightforward and involved a calculation of the perceived risks and financial benefits. Nearly half of the dealers had sold drugs offline before shifting to cryptomarkets, which involved additional risks from both law enforcement and bad customers who could be violent or informants. Vendors consistently pointed to the lowered risk from law enforcement as a motivation to sell online. Although cryptomarkets involve new risks, such as platform administrators suddenly leaving with deposited funds, they were considered an unavoidable cost of doing business. In addition to these economic considerations, vendors reported feelings of empowerment, freedom, transgression and emancipation.
Interviewees appreciated the relative safety and control characteristics of online selling, as compared to offline vending. They invested time and energy in growing a professional business identity centered around the provision of quality products and superior customer service. Although some participants missed the status and notoriety associated with street dealing, others reported satisfaction in being recognized among their online peers and customers. The authors observe two complementary forces promoting professionalism among cryptomarket vendors: the freedom to pursue a professional demeanor consistent with one’s personal values, and a market structure that demands customeroriented professionalism as a precondition for commercial success.
Findings indicate that cryptomarkets are different from other forms of drug selling, both in terms of market structure and participant norms, priorities and sensitivities. The immaterial benefits motivating cryptomarket drug trade differ from the seductions of crime usually associated with offline illicit activities. Cryptomarket trade appears grounded in reassuring middle-class norms of risk aversion and conflict avoidance, instead of romanticized risk and confrontation. The lifestyle and materialism to which some participants aspired (a comfortable house, graduate education) also correspond to middle class norms. Findings suggest that these soft seductions attract and motivate people, many of whom would not otherwise sell drugs on cryptomarkets.
Beyond economic concerns, lower risk, professional work practices and a middle class lifestyle were also motivators for cryptomarket drug vendors.