Lawmakers Move to ‘Crack Down’ on Dark Web-Based Opioid Trafficking

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Three agencies could be required to report on the use of cryptocurrency for drug dealing on the dark web.

Reps. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, introduced legislation on Wednesday that’s aimed at quashing drug dealers’ efforts to traffic opioids and other illegal substances on the dark web, or what are essentially hidden websites accessible solely via a specialized internet browser.

“We’re seeing the devastating and deadly results of the opioid crisis in both cities and rural areas across the country, fueled in large part by the dark web,” Gonzales said. “These illegal marketplaces are a hub and a safe haven for some of society’s most dangerous criminals, and as these bad actors get more advanced, we need to ensure our law enforcement [has] the proper tools to crack down on their efforts.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of drug overdose deaths quadrupled between 1991 and 2019—and more than 70% of the 70,630 deaths in 2019 involved an opioid. The U.S. government doesn’t track death rates associated with every drug, but more recent data published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse demonstrates that nearly 92,000 individuals in the U.S. died from a drug-involved overdose in 2020.

In the lawmakers’ view, “drug dealers use the dark web to traffic illegal drugs, exacerbating the substance use disorder crisis that is devastating communities” across America, including in their home states. 

Their legislation, if passed, would require the U.S. Sentencing Commission to extend criminal penalties for those caught trafficking illegal drugs on the dark web. It would also direct the Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury Departments to issue a report to Congress “detailing the use of cryptocurrency on the dark web,” within one year of the bill’s passage. Recommendations for how Congress can confront “the use of virtual currency for opioid trafficking on the dark web” would also be mandated.

Further, the bill also intends to make the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement or J-CODE task force—which steers coordinated international, federal, state and local efforts to combat drug trafficking on the dark web and has led the closure of several darknet-based marketplaces—permanent. The task force was initially established in 2018 under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s authority.

J-CODE would also be authorized to collaborate with non-profits if the legislation is passed, thus expanding its work.

“Confronting the ongoing substance use disorder crisis requires us to act on multiple fronts, including online,” Pappas said.

This bill was referred to the House Judiciary, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services Committees. Similar legislation was put forth in the Senate by Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, earlier this month.