In an apparent display of what the US federal government considers “essential” services during an ostensible government shutdown, law enforcement officials have seized the online drug marketplace known as the Silk Road. Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old man living in San Francisco, is accused of being the site’s figurehead, commonly known as the Dread Pirate Roberts. He is being charged with conspiracy in connection with hacking, money laundering, and of course drug trafficking. The official complaint also claims that he once attempted to hire a hitman to dispatch a user who was threatening him. There was, however, never any further evidence that a murder was committed. A close friend of Ulbricht’s, René Pinnell, insists that the charges are a case of mistaken identity.
The main website has been replaced with a notice from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, although the site’s forums are still in operation. The site, accessible only through the anonymizing service Tor and depending on an electronic currency known as Bitcoin, had been in operation for about two and a half years. Forbes magazine estimated it was collecting between $30 and $45 million annually in revenues, and cited an estimate from a student in Dublin that the site received 60,000 hits per day.
The Dread Pirate Roberts holds outspoken libertarian views, openly stating that the site was “founded on libertarian principles” and praising anarcho-capitalist theory. He has even founded a book club for the discussion of Austrian economics. Regarding drugs in particular, he has stated that “People own themselves, they own their bodies, and it is their right to put into their bodies whatever they choose. It’s not my place, or the government’s, or anyone else’s to say what a person does with their own body.” He has however criticized increasingly popular proposals for the legalization and taxation of drugs, pointing out that they would provide the state with greater revenue.
If the Silk Road has truly been shut down, this represents a setback for an innovative end-run around drug prohibition. The FBI has admitted to purchasing drugs from the site on over 100 occasions and finding them to “typically [show] high purity levels of the drug the item was advertised to be.” In other words, the site has been, unlike most of the black market, a more reliable and thus safer source for recreational drugs. This may be due to their system of seller ratings by consumers, allowing its numerous vendors to establish positive reputations. This type of consumer judgment is certainly an improvement over the often gang-controlled remainder of the drug market, where many suppliers do not necessarily respond well to criticism.
The most likely effect of the loss of the Silk Road will be an increase in funding for the less reliable and more violent elements of the black market. Users, particularly addicts, will be more likely to turn to products of unknown quality which may kill them. As has always been the case in the War on Drugs, a supposed crusade to protect public health and crack down on crime will have the opposite effect.
A version of this article was published at http://ssdp.org/news/blog/.
Image credit to www.theverge.com.