A really interesting article from writer Colin Moore from a terrific (new-ish) drug news website called Substance.com. I have copied the article directly from their website complete with links and credits of course. Most of the article is reprinted here but to read the rest you’ll have to go to the site itself, which might I add is well worth the trip. Subscribe with just an email address and they will send you daily or weekly updates of really interesting articles about the weird and wonderful world of substances! Photos courtesy of Via
Does Dark Web Drug Dealing Make the World a Better Place?
Cybermarkets are seen to promote individual liberty, violence-free transactions and less-contaminated drugs. Is their main failing simply their inability to scale up massively? Substance.com investigates.
“Silk Road is transforming a notoriously violent industry into a safe online marketplace, removing the risk of face-to-face transactions. We [are] humanity’s first truly free, anonymous, unbiased marketplace.”
These were the first words of the welcome on the homepage of Silk Road, the first-ever illegal Dark Web drug market, when the site went live in February 2011. They were written by the site’s founder Dread Pirate Roberts—real name: Ross William Ulbricht—who was then a 27-year-old self-described libertarian in thrall to the idea of real freedom: “Freedom from violence, from arbitrary morals and law, from corrupt centralized authorities and from centralization altogether.”
The illegal Dark Web, which is only accessible by volunteer-operated encrypted networks like Tor, attracts many “freedom-loving” types—libertarians, hackers, anarchists—as well as criminals of all kinds. It is home to a vast underground of black markets that move contraband. Trafficking has always been a high-reward, high-risk business. The creation of a massive anonymous online drug trafficking operation enabled Ulbricht to make more than $80 million in less than three years—even as he called himself a revolutionary promoting freedom, and safer drug selling, buying and using, and an end to prohibition and the violence of the drug war.
In October 2013, the FBI arrested Ulbricht and shut down Silk Road. He is now in jail awaiting trial on charges including narcotics trafficking, money laundering, computer hacking—and conspiracy to commit murder. This advocate of nonviolence allegedly paid hit men to kill a blackmailer and one of his employees. (One of the guns for hire was an undercover cop.)
His personal legal problems, however, do not invalidate his claims about Silk Road’s higher mission. It is still possible to ask, with a straight face, whether drug “cryptomarkets” are—or are capable of—transforming the illegal drug trade from a violent struggle between ruthless organized crime groups to a network of individual entrepreneurs and consumers. Or, more modestly, do these markets—or can they—promote safer drug dealing and using? Substance.com surveyed vendors and customers on Silk Road 2.0 and other cybermarkets and evaluated new research to answer these questions.
The FBI’s success in shutting down Silk Road did not spell doom for the illegal online drug bazaar. By November 2013, Silk Road administrators had a better-protected 2.0 version up and running. Meantime, rival marketplaces, such as Agora and Evolution, continue to operate, with Agora quickly becoming the new standard for online drug transactions. Its main competitor, Black Market Reloaded, shut down in November 2013 after its source code was leaked. After that, Sheep was the main competitor until it too went under—and stole a treasure in users’ bitcoin, the peer-to-peer crypto currency. A big part of Black Market Reloaded’s success came from its willingness to sell lethal weapons—even dynamite and other explosives. By contrast, Silk Road offers a wide range of merchandise but draws the line at weapons; the staff, who work on commission, take measures to reduce user risks, such as product contamination.
Some Silk Road 2.0 vendors voice on their profiles a belief in the freedom to use illegal drugs recreationally and a commitment to a safe forum for people to exercise that freedom. A vendor with over 1,000 successful sales, JustSmuggledN, writes: “This job is done because of the belief in freedom of choice, as we are free spirits who deserve that right. Our policy is to live by these principles and we make it our mission to satisfy all of our clients! We believe in good business practices and we run our operation that way.”
“Whereas violence was commonly used to gain market share, protect turfs and resolve conflicts,” the authors write, “the virtual location and anonymity that the cryptomarket provides reduces or eliminates the need—or even the ability—to resort to violence.”
The site’s forums engender discussion of the concepts of freedom, philosophy, economics, justice and drug safety. For example, in a November 2013 post, AussieMitch writes, “I believe that the consumption of mind-altering substances by consenting adults is a fundamental human right that is being impinged on by current government policy in much of the world. I believe that protecting the rightful freedoms of my fellow humans by subverting the current laws and assisting others in doing so is not only ethically justifiable but also morally commendable.” He includes his own 10-point ethical code for participation in the drug marketplace.
The Dark Web Model and the Drug War
Silk Road 2.0 was up and running the month after Silk Road was shut down.
A new study suggests that these underground drug marketplaces may—if scaled up enormously, in some distant future—pose an actual challenge to the cartel business model. Called “Not an ‘eBay for Drugs’: The Cryptomarket “Silk Road” as a Paradigm-Shifting Criminal Innovation” and authored by University of Manchester criminal science expert Judith Aldridge and University of Lausanne legal expert David Decary-Hetu, the study uses a tailor-made web crawler to scrape feedback and review data from Silk Road’s vendor profiles. Some surprising findings result. The most significant is that the amount of Silk Road’s bulk sales is much greater than analysts had previously estimated. It turns out that many customers are small-scale “street” dealers obtaining inventory on the Dark Web rather than traditional organized crime channels.
Estimated sales on Silk Road jumped from $14.4 million in mid-2012 to $89.7 million in the month before its shutdown, an increase of more than 600%. On average, 40% of these sales consisted of bulk buys; the top 20% included, for example, purchases of cannabis ranging from $1,000 to $1,475 and of ecstasy for $3,494. Many vendors offer their product at lower “dealer” prices when bought in bulk; some customers buy in bulk several times a month. In addition, “precursor” ingredients for hallucinogens, say, or methamphetamine are available for would-be producers and sellers.
“This new breed of drug dealer is…likely to be relatively free from the violence typically associated with traditional drug markets,” the authors write. “Whereas violence [in the traditional drug trade] was commonly used to gain market share, protect turfs 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.”
The claim that these drug cryptomarkets are comparatively free of violence is sound enough. But the authors go further, arguing that because this alternative drug supply chain has access to a worldwide market of new customers and the ability to operate in a low-risk environment through anonymous exchanges, it could—if scaled up—transform the global drug trade. That assertion may look good on paper, but in reality, the total revenue of the Dark Web drug market is minuscule compared to the $500 billion annual market of the cartels. While Silk Road’s 600% annual increase in sales indicates the alternative model’s growth potential, scaling up to a size capable of posing a competitive threat to the cartel business is impossible to credit.
“My hunch is that Silk Road may already be hitting some scalability limits due to the Tor network itself,” Carnegie Mellon computer security professor Nicolas Christin told The Daily Dot. “Although it has grown by leaps and bounds, it is still not a very large network, and most relays are run by volunteers. Hidden services are still a very experimental feature with known issues.”
The Safety of Deals and Drugs on the Dark Web
Putting the Zetas out of business may be off the table for Silk Road, but Silk Road gets high marks when it comes to improving the safety of drug transactions. Safety may be the main attraction of these sites for buyers and sellers. When Substance.com asked 20 participants on the forums, not a single one of them believed that transactions in Dark Web marketplaces present a danger from either law enforcement or violent or competing drug dealers.
“I started selling my products online when dealing on the streets became too dangerous for me and my family,” Australian cannabis and pharmaceuticals vendor TheSlyFox says. “Years ago, when I was 18, I sold small $50 bags of cannabis to a customer who bought from me successfully three times before. But the fourth time, I was seriously assaulted and robbed by seven Samoan New Zealanders. They stole all of my drugs, my money and left me to die.” Since he began selling his goods online, he has not encountered even the threat of violence.
The danger in buying drugs from street dealers sends many consumers to Silk Road. A Pennsylvania man described how an armed drug dealer ordered him to show his track marks to prove that he was not an undercover cop. “If I’m going down,” the dealer said, “I’m going to take you with me.” The man didn’t have track marks, but his accompanying friend did, sparing both of their lives. After two other life-threatening street deals, he started purchasing drugs from a trusted broker who buys online on behalf of others for a small fee.
Silk Road beats the street in the safety not only in the buying but also the selling of the drugs themselves. “Reducing face-face interaction was really important to me since a dealer mistrusting me is always an awful feeling and the situation might escalate,” says PGX83, an Agora user. “However, I didn’t primarily switch from traditional street deals to online marketplaces because of safety. It’s just more comfortable, you have a nice review system and can order directly from manufacturers guaranteeing better quality and also better prices.”
The purity of a street drug is typically unknown to the consumer; the further down the supply chain the product moves, the more cutting it goes through. With street heroin differing ratios of pure heroin to fentanyl or other substances can result in a fatal overdose. Silk Road features numerous listings that advertise high purity and sometimes include pictures of the product alongside chemical or EZ-test results. EZ tests, the most popular quick chemical testing kit, are also sold on the site. Small-scale drug dealers who source from Silk Road are likely get cleaner drugs (and lower prices), and may in turn sell a purer, safer product.
Read the rest of this article on Substance.coms website – and be sure to subscribe while your there for some really cool, well written drug related stories -for the drug enthusiast.
Colin Moore is a Pennsylvania-based writer who has been following the trends in the Dark Web’s illegal marketplaces for several years. Previously he wrote press releases and content for a media group in Texas, started a small alternative newsletter about local events, and wrote a monthly column for a local music e-zine, Get M.A.D.E.