3 Ways the Dark Web Makes Drugs Safer

The founder of the Silk Road is headed to prison this week, but he may have actually made drug use and the drug trade less dangerous.

This week, a federal judge will sentence Ross Ulbricht, founder and operator of the Silk Road, to at least 30 years in prison after he was convicted earlier this year of a handful of federal felonies for running the dark web drug sales website.

Silk Road was the flagship for the emerging billion-dollar online black market for drugs, and its takedown sent shudders throughout the shadowy industry. But those were mere shudders, not death knells, and with Silk Road replacements like Agora, Blackbank, and dozens of others doing land office business and continuing to frustrate law enforcement, the dark web appears poised to take up a larger and larger share of the illicit drug trade.

In seeking a lengthy sentence for Ulbricht, federal prosecutors portrayed Silk Road as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, but Ulbricht's defense attorneys and some harm reduction specialists retort that the Silk Road actually reduced the risk of both drug use and making black market drug transactions.

In a sentencing memo to the court, the defense team argued that Silk Road—and by extension, other dark web black market drug sales websites—actually reduce the harm related to drug use and the black market and asked the judge to take that into account during sentencing.

"In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling," wrote Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing. "In addition, transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner."

How did Silk Road make drugs safer? Here's how:

1.     A more reliable way to buy untainted drugs.  One thing Silk Road did was to create an eBay-like system of ratings and reviews for online drug sellers. With the ability to generate fast feedback, the online drug-buying community quickly weeds out sellers of shoddy or impure products. That's much more difficult to do when you're scoring from some guy in a hoodie on the street corner.

2.       Encouraging safer drug use. Silk Road had a section of its website devoted to safer drug use, complete with exhortations to adopt harm reduction measures, where users could seek help and advice with health issues. It also featured a Spanish doctor who frequented the site and answered users' questions. At one point, Silk Road even offered to pay him $500 a week and was seeking to have him conduct quality control tests on drugs offered for sale on the site (it's not clear if that ever actually happened). "Silk Road forums…appeared to act as an information mechanism for the promotion of safer and more acceptable or responsible forms of recreational drug use," wrote Tim Bingham, author of three studies of Silk Road published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

3.      Reducing physical interactions that could lead to violence.  Violence has always been associated with illicit black markets, whether in the form of "turf wars" over control of territory, rip-offs of customers or sellers, or confrontations between law enforcement and black market participants. But the digital and anonymous nature of dark web drug sales keeps buyers and sellers physically separate, obviating those concerns. And you don't have to go to sketchy neighborhoods to score on the street; your dope comes to your door courtesy of your favorite package delivery service. As Meghan Ralston, the former harm reduction person for the Drug Policy Alliance, noted: "Using Silk Road could be seen as a more responsible approach to drug sales, a peaceable alterative to the often deadly violence so commonly associated with the drug war, and street drug transactions, in particular. None of the transactions on Silk Road, for instance, resulted in women drug buyers being sexually assaulted or forced to trade sex for drugs, as is common in street-level drug transactions. Nor did any Silk Road transactions result in anyone having a gun pulled on them at the moment of  purchase, also a common danger present in street-level drug transactions."

Quality control, harm reduction, violence reduction. Those seem like smart ways to deal with illicit drug use. And while Silk Road may be gone, its successors are flourishing and are likely to take up an ever larger share of the drug marketplace. Maybe that's a good thing. 


Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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