Silk Road has reportedly cut drug violence. Can technology tame the narcotics trade?

By Michael Carney , written on June 4, 2014

From The News Desk

The drug trade doesn’t need to mean street gangs and cartel wars.

A new study authored by University of Lausanne criminologist David Decary-Hetu and University of Manchester law professor Judith Aldridge suggests that online marketplaces – like Dark Web pioneer Silk Road and its second generation imitators – have resulted in a kinder, gentler, and somewhat nerdier drug trade.

Silk Road and its copycats rely on pseudo-anonymous crypto-currencies and uses the Tor privacy software to obscure users’ locations, thereby preventing physical contact between buyers and sellers. The result is a drop in violence. The best Silk Road drug dealers have excelled in customer service and communication skills – not to mention technology – rather than intimidation, the paper argues.

The authors write:

Whereas violence was commonly used to gain market share, protect turfs and resolve conflicts [in the physical world drug trade], the virtual location and anonymity that the cryptomarket provides reduces or eliminates the need – or even the ability – to resort to violence.
Silk Road’s creator, going the online name Dread Pirate Roberts – allegedly 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht – often wrote about his desire to create a safe and non-violent alternative to the bloody world of street drug sales. That said, Ulbricht is also accused of plotting to assassinate a half dozen people who threatened his operation.

The study arrives at another interesting conclusion. By scraping the feedback and reviews posted to Silk Road in September 2013, and noticing the large size and frequency of purchase activity, the authors conclude that a significant portion of Silk Road transactions were between two dealers – making it essentially a wholesale marketplace, rather than an eBay-like consumer platform. This is critical, given that cartel-level drug producers and distributors are responsible for much of the violence in the analog equivalent of this underworld economy.

Further, Silk Road didn’t traffic heavily in the most hardcore of street drugs like heroin, meth, or crack. Rather, marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription drugs were far more common, leading the authors to conclude:

The site may therefore have suited purchases by recreational users with the resources and time to place orders and wait for deliveries; dependent users with chaotic lifestyles, in contrast, were likely to have had neither.
Of course this activity was happening in a world where drug trade is still illegal. But it raises interesting questions about a world in which drugs were legalized, but somehow regulated. Could the use of online marketplaces, perhaps those incorporating anonymity, be a tool in modulating the negative consequences?

We are years away from recreational drugs other than Marijuana being legalized, if they ever are. But as we contemplate a world in which the drug trade no longer funds cartels, narco-terrorists, and low-level street gangs, maybe technology is a part of the answer. It’s not like things could get much worse.