Dealing drugs online is a lot less bloody than doing it on a street corner — and cryptomarkets like Silk Road and its many spinoffs might actually make the business less violent.
That is the argument made in a research paper published in May by two professors who studied Silk Road — the online drug bazaar shut down by the feds in October 2013. The researchers — Judith Aldridge, a law professor, and David Décary-Hétu, a criminologist — claim that the “virtual location” of the deals reduced the potential for violence, intimidation, and turf wars.
The premise is simple: Whether you are dealing with customers or fellow dealers, you are a lot less likely to shoot them if you are not anywhere near them.
In the world of street trafficking, most of the violence is dealer-on-dealer, whether over territory or deals gone wrong. And that’s precisely the kind of violence Silk Road apparently helped to curb.
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Disputing the common notion that Silk Road was some kind of “eBay for drugs” — where regular users would turn for their supply — Aldridge and Décary-Hétu argue that the site served rather as a marketplace for people in the business, minimizing real contact, and, with it, the potential for things to go wrong.
“When we browsed its listings, it was apparent that many vendors were selling in quantities, at prices, and using terminology suggesting that they were knowingly selling to customers intent on resale: to customers who were themselves drug dealers,” the report reads.
The researchers — who described Silk Road as “a paradigm-shifting criminal innovation,” something akin to the industrial revolution of drugs — scraped the contents of the site just before the FBI walked into a San Francisco public library in October 2013 and arrested Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the site’s founder.
'In the drugs cryptomarket era, having good customer service and writing skills, having a good reputation via ‘feedback’ as a vendor or buyer may be more important than muscles and face-to-face connections.'
The data they pulled showed that around 31-45 percent of the site’s revenue — some $89.7 million between 2012 and 2013, according to their calculations — could be categorized as “high price-quantity sales,” in other words, not your personal weekend stock (hopefully).
“Silk Road wasn't just an eBay for drugs,” Aldridge told VICE News. “It was a new way of doing business. It not only offered what was apparent to everyone: A new way to access customers, including customers not already known to them, but it also offered drug dealers a new way of sourcing stock.”
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The site made transactions less violent not only by putting a screen between sellers and buyers, but also by inspiring a “new breed” of drug dealers, the researchers argued — geekier, gentler internet types, unassuming guys like Ulbricht, rather than the Avon Barksdales and Marlo Stanfields of the drug dealing business as we know it.
“[Silk Road] has allowed those who previously did not have the contacts or reputation to be drug dealers to become drug dealers, since a 'tough reputation' and real-world contacts are no longer required,” Aldridge said. “Whereas violence in drug markets has been commonly used to gain market share, protect turf and stock, and resolve conflicts, the virtual location and anonymity that the cryptomarket provides reduces or eliminates the need — or even the ability — to resort to violence.”
What helps crypto dealers then is not the guns or the street cred, but the same qualities that make some Craigslist sellers more successful than others — things like proper spelling and professionalism.
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“The skills required to be a drug dealer are likely to be different for those who operate on a cryptomarket,” Aldridge said. “These changes are likely to have a deep impact on the skills needed to succeed in crime markets. In the drugs cryptomarket era, having good customer service and writing skills, having a good reputation via ‘feedback’ as a vendor or buyer may be more important than muscles and face-to-face connections.”
This idea seems to reflect one of the notions that inspired Silk Road in the first place.
"Your average joe pot dealer, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, that guy became my hero," Dread Pirate Roberts wrote in one of his musings on the site's user forums, quoted by Forbes.
But not everyone is psyched by the online market — nor convinced by the argument that online sales will stem the violence.
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“If somebody is setting up a website for the express purpose of selling stuff that’s illegal, violent people are gonna come along, and they are gonna be interested in that; that’s part of the trade,” Garth Bruen, a senior fellow at Digital Citizens, an internet commerce watchdog, told VICE News. “When you are creating a space where people can meet and commit crimes and potentially commit violence, you do have a responsibility, and I don’t think you should walk away from the responsibility and say that you didn’t know that it was gonna happen.”
In addition to the drug charges, prosecutors also accused Ulbricht of having paid to have six people murdered for $730,000, although investigators said there is no evidence the murders ever happened.
There is also no evidence that any murders have ever been arranged via Silk Road. But the potential for that kind of violence is intrinsic to the site, critics said.
"They are very, very strange circumstances, I think in that particular case [Ulbricht's] there was no actual murder, I think he was the victim of a very sophisticated con," Bruen said.
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But the risk is "absolutely" there, he added, "because within these cyber markets you have lots of different people openly advertising to be hit men and some of them may be fake, but probably many of them are real. The problem is that there are people out there who are looking to hire them, and this gives them an avenue to make that connection."
'Revenues on Silk Road were calculated in tens of millions of dollars whereas the international drug trade is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.'
Yet the popularity of online drug dealing quickly exploded — with Silk Road’s sales seeing a 600 percent increase in just over a year, before the FBI shut it down. But, since then, countless replicas have popped up to fulfill the demand, and just months after Ulbricht’s arrest, Silk Road was back up in its “2.0” version — with even more drugs listed for sale than before, according to a report released in April by the Digital Citizens Alliance.
Aldridge and Décary-Hétu's study acknowledges that cryptomarkets make up for a “negligible” portion of the international drug trade. What’s revolutionary, they say, is its potential.
“Revenues on Silk Road were calculated in tens of millions of dollars whereas the international drug trade is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars,” the study states. “The importance of Silk Road does not stem from the revenues it has generated but rather from the impact it is likely to have on how drugs are bought and sold in the future: its potential and actuality as a transformative criminal innovation.”
But no matter how revolutionary, Silk Road is not about to change the violence that's intrinsic to all steps of the illicit drug trade.
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Most importantly, the online transaction might minimize the potential for violence of the sale itself — but it does nothing to address the violence that may be committed by drug users, whether in an attempt to get money to buy more drugs or while under the influence. Nor do online sales do much about the violence of drug movements at the macro level.
“If you are conducting a drug deal online, the only violence that’s eliminated is in the space of the transaction: The violence between the manufacturers of the drugs, especially in places like Mexico or Colombia or pretty much anywhere else where violence swirls around that world, is still there,” Bruen said.
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“There’s gonna be violence in the space of the middleman, and the traffickers, and the people who are delivering it to that final step. You eliminate the violence of the purchaser and the dealer, potentially, but the violence goes on everywhere else, you’re not gonna cure the drug-related violence problem just with this.”
Worse still, online drug sales open up the market to all kinds of new users, a risk acknowledged by the study’s authors.
“Some people may cite the relevant safety of not dealing with drug people face-to-face, but I actually think there’s an enormous downside, especially when it comes to the youth, because in order for a young person to make that first leap of trying drugs, they have to be introduced to the culture, they may have to meet unsavory characters, or go to a part of town where they don’t feel safe, and those are barriers that will actually keep a lot of kids from trying drugs,” Bruen said. “Now those barriers are completely gone, there’s no fear whatsoever, they can get their parents’ credit card and just order it, and I think that makes the situation much worse.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
Steve Sampson — co-author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs — contributed to this report.