Last Friday, May 29 2015, Federal Judge Katherine “Kitty” Forrest sentenced the alleged “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for basically setting up and profiting from the dark web website “The Silk Road”, which facilitated the sale of illegal drugs over the internet and through the mail. Dangerous drug kingpin taken off the streets, right? Maybe not. As portrayed in the excellent new documentary Deep Web by Alex Winter, the case took a number of very strange turns. Two FBI agents have been indicted for stealing bitcoins during the investigation; there were allegations of Ross attempting to hire hit men (and accusations of entrapment) for which he was never charged; and important, unanswered questions about how the Silk Road servers were accessed. A range of Fourth Amendment issues are at stake in the case; and an appeal is certain.
Here’s the thing. Regardless of questions about Ulbricht’s intentions or character, the fact is that The Silk Road was the safest illegal drug marketplace ever devised. Instead of street gangs killing each other over the rights to sell on the corner, drugs were safely vended through the internet and mail. Instead of contaminated street drugs of unknown potency, Silk Road dealers depended on feedback and reviews from their buyers. People who want to buy drugs are going to buy drugs. This made it much, much safer.
In your normal illegal drug transaction, the sale works something like this. “Here’s $100. Here’s your bag of drugs.” What if the drugs are adulterated? What if instead of say heroin, you bag o drugs is full of fentanyl, which is about 15-20 times more potent, and has led to untold number of overdose deaths? What if your bag of coke is cut with levamisole, an adulterant which lowers white blood cell counts, leaving the user vulnerable to infection? What if the blotter acid is actually 25I-NBOMe, which unlike LSD is known to have caused overdose deaths and vasoconstriction? What’s the consumer, if still alive, supposed to do, go back to the corner and ask your local street dealer for a refund?
Unlike virtually all known illegal drug markets, the Silk Road had a rating and review system for dealers, essentially keeping them honest. If you sold cut coke, people would report it and your business would disappear as customers would flock to rival vendors. You don’t have to believe in libertarian economics to see how this simple feedback mechanism is an enormous innovation in increasing safety in illegal drug transactions and dramatically boosts harm reduction. It’s basically a safer, more civilized way of buying illegal drugs. Of course, an even simpler solution would to be legalize drugs and set up regulated markets. But until that happens, there is no question that the Silk Road hugely reduced the harm of drug transactions.
That’s one reason why after the Silk Road was taken down, new marketplaces immediately sprang up to take its place. And then, after another wave of takedowns and arrests brought down Silk Road 2 and other newer darkweb drug markets, still newer ones have appeared, and business is booming. Anyway, “drugs in the mail” hardly started with the Silk Road. People have been sending drugs in the mail since there were drugs and mail (patent medicines anybody?) A thriving ‘research chemical’ marketplace also continues selling grey-market drugs that are analogues or simple molecular tweaks of already existing drugs. The number of new stimulant drugs that have appeared on the market in the last few years alone beggars belief. Mainly based on alterations of the active molecule cathinone from the mild stimulant drug plant khat, new drugs such as mephedrone, methylone, and the new supposed latest scourge of the drug world “flakka” (alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, or a-pvp, marketed in Florida as “flakka”), are “the stimulants of prohibition.” As each one is banned, a new, still legal one takes its place. Similarly, people buy unpredictable and potentially carcinogenic legal synthetic cannabinomimetics when marijuana is banned. People buy relatively untested and potentially dangerous psychedelic compounds like the NBOMe series when the much safer LSD and mushrooms are scarce. Nobody knows what the hell is in their MDMA anymore. All of these developments make drug taking much more dangerous. The Silk Road made drug taking much safer. Anyway, the number one drug sold on the Silk Road by an enormous margin? Marijuana.
As portrayed in the film Deep Web, the Silk Road’s creator, Ross Ulbricht was a libertarian idealist, who wanted to create a community free from government interference and intervention. And if there’s one thing the government can’t stand, it’s a community free from government interference and intervention. If there’s another thing it can’t stand, its diminishing budgets for the incredibly profitable war on drugs. The Silk Road posed a significant threat to those who profit from the street drug trade. And by that I mean not wholesalers or distributors, who could easily utilize the Silk Road model themselves, but local law enforcement, corrections workers, the private prison industry and related contractors, the forced rehab industry, etc. Drugs in the mail basically puts a lot fewer bodies in jail than the street trade, (even if it also puts fewer bodies in the morgue), and that’s bad for business if you’re a police officer in a Narcotics Unit or a recipient of campaign donations from Corrections Corporation of America.
The life sentence without parole for Ulbricht was explicitly designed to send a message. The messages received (Judge “Kitty” is insane, and the justice system is a joke?) prove the Federal government to have no interest whatsoever in harm reduction. Reportedly, six people died as a result of drugs bought through the Silk Road. One of these deaths was due to pneumonia possibly exacerbated by use of cocaine, heroin, and meth. One of these deaths was of an Australian teenager who fell off a balcony under the influence of 25i-NBOMe which is actually still legal in most of Australia. Three others died of heroin overdoses. These figures must be contrasted with the fact that there were something like 1.2 million drug transactions enacted under Silk Road, which works out to a fatality percentage of 0.0005%. While one overdose death is regrettable, one has to admit this is a very small proportion. These statistics themselves point out that the Silk Road did indeed lead to harm reduction, and harm reduction was reported as a significant ethos of the site members.
Ulbricht will appeal, and maybe under a different judge, one who isn’t beholden for her bench appointment to the one of the worst, drug-war-mongering Senators of our time, and the man who led the crusade against the Silk Road, Sen. Charles Schumer, a different verdict or at least a less draconian sentence will be reached. But ultimately the takeaway lesson will be this – keep dealing drugs unsafely on the streets where they belong, with a maximum of harm to both buyer and seller. Or we’ll put you in prison for life.
Jonathan Taylor is a Professor in the Geography Department at California State University, Fullerton.