Oops! Silk Road shutdown leads to more online drug sales

By Michael Carney , written on March 31, 2014

From The News Desk

It looks as if global law enforcement is getting a taste of the Streisand effect. Nearly six months after the FBI seized the underground black market website Silk Road, not only have dozens of copycats sprung up in its place (although none yet reaching its level of scale or dominance), but also the level of online drug sales activity has actually increased in some jurisdictions. This, according a new report by ABC News Australia. The explosion in activity appears to lead straight back to the media coverage of the event.

"Following the closure there was definitely a big migration from users on the Silk Road onto alternate marketplaces," says Joe Van Buskirk of Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC). In the time since Silk Road was closed, the number of Australians selling drugs online has doubled, the report claims. "In the wake of the departure of [two prominent Australians drug dealers on Silk Road], there was a bit of a gap in the market that it seemed that people were coming in to fill.”

Few outside the most technically savvy communities knew the “Dark Web” of unlisted websites even existed six months ago, let alone that it was possible to buy drugs anonymously online and have them delivered to your doorstep. Sure, average consumers have heard about buying Adderall and Viagra online from Canada, but not marijuana, cocaine, and heroin (or weapons, murders, and trafficked humans).

That is, until the mainstream news pounced on the scandalous story, alerting the global middle class to the virtual bazaar that could satisfy their every hedonistic desire. Now proverbial housewives and soccer dads are clued in and, in many cases, looking to avail themselves of the Dark Web’s many pleasures.

This should come as no shock to anyone who has followed the history of crackdowns against similar online behavior like content piracy. Napster's shut down did nothing to curb illegal music sharing. If anything, it made it more mainstream. It was only the advent of iTunes, a low friction, technology-driven alternative to the sale of physical CDs (mostly via brick-and-mortar stores) – and the proliferation of malware across torrent forums – that made music piracy more trouble than it was worth. By the same token, the offline War on Drugs has been anything but effective in curbing consumer appetite for mind altering substances or the willingness of profit seekers to risk life and limb to satisfy this demand.

Which leads us to the next observation within the ABC report: there aren't just more buyers post-Silk Road, but more sellers too. Silk Road was not just a place to procure illegal substances, it was a place where plenty of people made a small fortune selling them – typically at premium prices, because, you know, convenience. So it’s unsurprising that when headlines declaring that accused Silk Road creator Ross William Ulbricht has stashed away hundreds of millions in ill-gotten gains, others want to get in on a piece of that action. The temptation driven by media coverage cuts both ways.

With the rise in mainstream awareness, research indicates that the buying habits of Dark Web customers have shifted as well. While Silk Road used to deal primarily in hardcore drugs like heroin and psychedelics, its successors have seen more demand for prescribed opioids like oxycodone, morphine, or codeine – the vices of the suburbs.

Despite the obvious concerns raised by anonymous drug sales, these Australian researchers are asking whether there may in fact be benefits to online drug marketplaces. Van Buskirk says:

Some researchers have put forth the argument that this actually leads to a harm minimisation approach to [the] purchasing of drugs. People can have direct feedback if the substance isn't good or has impurities or adulterants or things like that. While that may be the case it also leads to increased drug taking in greater frequencies, greater amounts and of a greater amount of drugs. So it's a bit of a doubled-edged sword.

[Image adapted from Images_of_Money, flickr]