If you buy drugs on the dark web in Russia, be prepared to go on a treasure hunt.
It’s common for dealers to conceal their packages in elaborate hiding places in public in order to evade detection. However, this means buyers must jump through hoops to pick up their purchases.
“The packaging is perfect. It looks like a pebble made of foil and wrapped in the insulation tape with the small magnet inside,” Russian drug user Lev, who recently bought a gram of speed on a darknet market, a hidden website accessible only through the anonymizing network Tor, told The Outline. “Magnet makes a lot of sense, because your order can be attached to anything made of metal around the city. You just need to stop by for a second and pick it up; and if it is buried in the ground or snow dealers use brighter tape, so you can easily find the ‘treasure.’”
In this real-life quest, “treasure” is the new name for drugs, and dealers are “treasure men.”
While the laws have relaxed in the past 15 years, Russia takes a hard-line position on drug use. Drug use is considered a moral deficiency, and health policies that emphasize harm reduction are often rejected in favor of harsher treatments and prison terms.
A reported 21 percent of Russian prisoners were convicted for drug offenses. Possession of even small amounts of marijuana can lead to a three- to ten-year sentence, while penalties for distribution are even higher. Police can stop anyone who looks suspicious. No one knows how they define “suspicious,” so that just means they are allowed to inspect everyone.
“Treasure” is the new name for drugs, and dealers are “treasure men.”
That’s why drug dealers and customers prefer not to risk meeting in person. They connect on RAMP, the Russian Anonymous Marketplace, the best-known market on the dark web. They send an anonymous payment with bitcoin or through the terminals used to make money transfers to mobile numbers. Then the shop sends the buyer a message with GPS coordinates and a photo of the hiding place. Your challenge is to find it — but sometimes it’s not that simple.
As with most darknet shops, sellers on RAMP have review sections. This is the place where customers complain about the treasure men who choose the weirdest locations to hide their goods. “That dumb-ass left my treasure in one of a university’s bathrooms and I don’t even study there! I tried to get in for like three days or so. Finally, I told security I was going to dean’s office and they put my ID-number on the record,” one customer wrote. “The treasure was hidden in one of the city buses. I got the route number and the bus licence code. The stuff was in the tube under the seat. That quest was the fucking worst!” another said.
Customers also rate orders from 0 to 5, as in “5/5/5, Found! Stumbled across a moose in the forest, scared the shit out of me!” from a user who was forced to go into the woods to find their treasure. Some are already high when they set out: “Random cat walked us to the treasure and then disappeared. That’s awesome! Thanks for training animal guides!” Unfortunately, animals don’t always help: “Found nothing. Birdhouse wasn’t the best place to hide amphetamine. Hopefully, at least, birdies sped up!” Plants don’t either: “Fuck you, treasure men! You sent me the photo of the small fir-tree, but there are 50 of them on the spot. I checked each one as if they were Louvre paintings.”
These quests often lead to abandoned or restricted areas. “Hey, treasure-man, are you fucking sick? Why did you leave the stuff on the landfill? I almost got my ass kicked by homeless, they thought I was stealing empty bottles from garbage.” Sometimes dealers forget that it actually snows in Russia and make you climb buildings: “Treasure-man left my stuff on the roof and sent me the summer picture. When I got there — the roof was covered with 6 inches of snow and ice. I had to dig on the roof for hours.”
The practice is arguably more prudent than sending drugs through the mail directly to an address supplied by a user, which is the practice in the US. It certainly protects drug dealers, who can plant the treasure and get far away before telling anyone else where it’s buried. However, people traipsing through the woods, climbing roofs, and trespassing on private property seems more likely to attract attention from law enforcement.
That doesn’t seem to stop buyers though, some of whom appear to enjoy the hunt. “Cut off the part of the great finger while digging. Don’t hide treasures in broken glass,” one user wrote on RAMP. “I have more fingers though, so I’ll continue to shop here! 5.”
Andrey Urodov is a freelance journalist and the publisher of the magazine Russia Without Us.