The real Walter White. The modern day Pablo Escobar. These are just two of the ways people described Ross Ulbricht.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ulbricht, he was the brain behind Silk Road. The world’s largest online drugs market and perhaps the most interesting man to ever graduate from Pennsylvania State University.
Ulbricht hit the headlines late last year after the FBI seized his drug empire in a Hollywood-esque bust. One of Silk Road’s vendors (dealers, to you and I) attempted to blackmail Ulbricht for $500,000 in exchange for him not to leak the names and addresses of hundreds of drug buyers across the world. In response Ulbricht ordered a hit out on the man who was only known by his username ‘FriendlyChemist’. After going through a number of different online hitmen (yeah, that is a real thing, believe it or not). It later transpired that the man he had ordered the hit through was in fact an FBI agent posing as an assassin.
After several months of Silk Road being closed, a new incarnation popped up, Silk Road 2.0 (clever name, right?). However, now the most recent manifestation of the Silk Road empire has fallen. The site’s second embodiment has now been shut down and it’s admins arrested by the DEA.
While this may sound like the plot to a new Liam Neeson film, it is in fact the goings on of one of the world’s most successful and intelligent drug operations. One that wasn’t set up as a way for Ulbricht and co to make a quick buck, but as a Libertarian movement geared towards the anonymous sale of illicit items online.
There were several things that made Silk Road special. Not only could you order literally any form of substance directly to your door. But the people on there were genuinely quite nice. They offered unparalleled service to their customers (refunds were a well known solution if your package never arrived). And the consumers on Silk Road weren’t just about taking a load of drugs to ensure they got sufficiently off their face. They had their own forum where they shared information on safe drug consumption, possible scammers and results of drug purity tests.
All in all, it meant you paid a premium for a product that was guaranteed to be what it was advertised as. Something that was particularly important during a time when ravers were dropping dead from PMA disguised as pills and losing their shit to fake weed. It meant that the days of paying £50 for a wrap of speed and baby powder were over. Now you could simply log onto a secure site, scroll through a few listings and read a review of your desired purchase. Press order, and more often than not you’d have a package waiting for you in the next day or so.
It also meant that there was no chance of the awkward small talk that you had to engage in every time you saw your not-so-friendly neighborhood drug dealer. It was a great service that catered to those who wanted to be free to experiment with substances.
Over the two and a half years of the original Silk Road being active it amassed a yearly cash flow of over $20 million. A number, which as staggering as it may sound, is actually pretty unsurprising. If you imagine the amount of people who buy drugs in the world, it’s pretty high.
However the drugs market has always been flawed. The missing piece has always been there is zero regulation. Dealers have the ability to do whatever they want. They can tell you they’ll be 20 minutes and end up taking three hours. Ask for a gram of MDMA? They’ll give you 0.8 grams made up of 50% MDMA and 50% caffeine and PMA. And worst of all, there was nothing you could do about it. You had to suck it up and take it. There was no quality control, no ‘if your order takes longer than two hours it’s on the house’, and certainly no trade union.
What Silk Road offered was a way for recreational drug users to take control of what they were putting inside their body. Something that may sound ridiculous, as surely if people want to take drugs they should deal with the consequences, right? Well not really. As drug users are already taking control of their health by choosing to do drugs. Therefore they don’t need a bloke they met on the street to compromise their health any further by cutting their drugs with rat poison, PMA or powdered milk. To understand why people took to using to Silk Road, I asked a few people who'd used the service. One man told me:
“I don’t think I’d ever go back to using a regular dealer if I’m honest. It’s just too shady, and I hate the idea of getting hotpacked [sold drugs that have been cut with other agents]. A few years back I knew a guy who was addicted to dope and one day a dealer hotpacked him. Both he and his girlfriend died on the spot.”
Examples such as this are rife in the Silk Road community. People turned to the site as a way to combat being sold drugs that were unclean, and ultimately more dangerous. And while this may come part and parcel of being a drug user, it is surely not fair that the government is letting people die because of the actions of dealers who have no care for their consumer.
If the government decided to de-regulate paracetamol, and every time you had a hangover you ended up playing dice with your life. I’m sure not that many of you would be too pleased. As let’s face it, just like paracetamol, you’re never going to stop people from taking drugs, regardless of their legality. It’s happened for as long as we can recall, and it’s probably going to keep happening for some time. Therefore let’s make it safe for those who do decide to do drugs. As people dying from legal highs and poorly cut drugs certainly isn’t the way to go.
That’s where Silk Road and its strong-minded community came into play. Dealers were no longer allowed to sell crap gear. If someone sold a Silk Road user PMA rather than a pill, everyone would soon know about it. And that dealer would end up with no customers and on a blacklist.
This strong sense of community was the thing that drove Silk Road, and kept it going through the more difficult spells of corruption and uncertainty. Another user said:
“The thing with Silk Road, and the Deep Web in general I guess, was that there was a community there. People on there were talking about things that the government didn’t want you to know about. They were talking about how to take drugs safely. Which as crazy as it sounds, seems to be something the government are desperate for us not to know about.”
So while the internet mourns the death of another Silk Road. And more recreational drug users are left to return to their lives of badly cut pills and dodgy dealings. Let’s just hope that someone may be crazy enough to reboot the site for a final installment (Silk Road 3.0, I suppose), and that, unlike other famous trilogies such as The Terminator, Rambo and the Godfather, the third chapter isn’t the worst.