Amazon.com for Illegal Drugs?

On January 3, 2009, Satoshi Nakomoto officially created a new currency.  He would call it bitcoin.  No dead presidents, silver, or gold—just thirty-one thousand lines of code.  In an online profile, he said he lived in Japan.  His email address was from a free German service.  Google searches for his name turned up no relevant information.  Nakamoto was a cipher, intentionally remaining anonymous at the time of bitcoin’s creation–and still–at the writing of this post.  So what of the hacker version of the Dos Equis Guy,  “Most Interesting Man in the World 2.0?”

Satoshi: This Could Be You. Go Public.

Motivated in part by frustration over the financial crisis, Nakamoto sought to create a currency impervious to monetary policy or the whims of bankers and politicians. Nakamoto is not the first to try his hand at digital money.  Cypherpunks—the 1990s movement of libertarian cryptographers—dedicated themselves to this very effort unsuccessfully.  Others like cryptographer David Chaum tried in the early 1990s, finding their Sisyphean efforts foundering because of their dependence on the existing infrastructures of government and credit card companies.  Bit gold, RPOW, and b-money—all attempts at digital currency—all failed for this very reason.

Fortunately, bitcoin did away with the third party by publicly distributing the ledger, or what Nakamoto calls the “block chain.”  Amidst concerns about the ability of governments and banks to manage the economy and money supply, bitcoin had found a way to both preserve the anonymity of bitcoin buyers and sellers, but also to prevent fraud.  The bitcoin software encrypts each transaction—the sender and receiver are identified only by a string of numbers—but a public record of every coin’s movement is published across the entire network.  It should come as no surprise to readers that the code for bitcoin was built with the same peer-to-peer technology that facilitates the exchange of pirated movies and music.  In each case, users connect with each other rather than with a central server.  As such, decentralized models continue to offer avenues for those looking to circumvent traditional power brokers such as banks, corporations, and the nation-state.

At this point, you’ve probably asked yourself more than once: What does any of this have to do with drugs?  Fair question.  Quietly, in February of 2011 a website was launched called Silk Road on the so-called secret Internet.  In short, the site allows users to buy and sell heroin, LSD, marijuana, and even Fentanyl lollipops using bitcoin only.  Here’s how it works:First, the Silk Road URL is useless when attempted with everyday Internet browsers.  In order to access the site, one must first download TOR Network client software.  TOR is often referred to as “anonymizing software” because it allows your Internet activity to be run through multiple computers to make your activity and transactions virtually untraceable.  Using TOR, one can now access Silk Road and enjoy a comfortable, familiar shopping experience eerily similar to Amazon.  Each seller has reviews—provided by other users—regarding past transactions.   Products are also separated by categories such as cannabis, stimulants, psychedelics, benzos, etc.  Silk Road even has a shopping cart icon in the top right-hand corner.  You may feel like you are shopping for DVD’s rather than copping drugs and other black market items which span the gamut of freebase DMT, MDMA from Holland, an M16, forged Doctor prescription pads, and a fully editable UCLA acceptance letter.  One-stop shopping for suburban Joey’s and Johnny’s looking to feign academic success, get high, or start an armed revolution.

Thanks to Chuck Schumer, Streets Are safer without Malt-Liquor Energy Drinks. They Taste like Kool-Aid and Children Love them.

Silk Road remained under the radar for a short period, until Gawker’s article on the black market site exploded both Silk Road and bitcoin into the national mainstream.  As one might expect, politicians responded with their usual package of calls for reactionary measures, often-laced with hyperbole and occasional truths.  Fresh off his attack on Four Loko, Senator Charles Schumer teamed up with Senator Joe Manchin to shout-down Silk Road and bitcoin from the rafters.  In a June 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and DEA Chief Michele Leonhart, the senators warned that bitcoin and Silk Road posed a “growing threat to all of our families” and would, “hurt our ability to create and save jobs” threatening “total destruction” of our society and communities.  The letter closed by asking Holder to shut down the site in order to “stop these drugs from flooding our streets.”

While scores of hash, high-grade cocaine, and Valium have not yet blocked traffic on American Streets or forced citizens to head for high places, Schumer and Manchin seem quite comfortable using fear-based, alarmist rhetoric.  This is because such rhetoric has a long, proud history of producing/exacerbating concern, stimulating agitation for reform, and ramming through punitive legislation.   A second look reveals that Schumer and Manchin took another page out of the drug reform playbook:  find a scapegoat for problems you have no idea how to fix.  Clearly, constituents in New York and West Virginia will not find their elected officials creating or saving jobs because a remote website sells drugs.  Wait… What?

In the 1980s, the fixation upon punishing crack pushers and addicts allowed politicians to ignore broader structural problems such as diminishing city tax bases, as well as inequitable access to education, employment, and overall opportunity.  Similar dynamics have appeared throughout our history when new drugs are introduced, or specific “dangerous” classes of users take to specific drugs.   In each case the drug and/or its users and sellers are blamed for a host of societal problems, many of which they frequently have nothing to do with.  Perhaps Schumer and Manchin are right:  Silk Road is a sign of the apocalypse, and it is also to blame for our reliance on foreign oil, the financial meltdown, and the blister on my big toe.  However, it is also possible that Silk Road is just another example of the drug trade’s ability to remain a step ahead of enforcement.

The senators argue that Attorney General Eric Holder has the authority to shut down the site and seize its domain name under the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act.  There is one small problem.  Because of the decentralized model followed by both bitcoin and Silk Road, there is no company in control, no offices to raid, and nobody to arrest.  Because Silk Road uses TOR, there is also no domain name to be seized.  However, Silk Road is not the airtight safe it is publicized as.  When a user first arrives at the site, they are greeted with a message: “We do not guarantee your anonymity, protection from law enforcement, or protection from other users of this service.”  As bitcoin expert Gavin Andresen explained in an October RollingStone article:  “All but the most sophisticated users should assume their bitcoin transactions could be traced.”  Bitcoin core team developer Jeff Garzik warns that those buying illegal drugs using bitcoin do so at their own peril, “attempting major illicit transactions with Bitcoin, is pretty damned dumb.”

We should not expect drug cartels to be posting wholesale ads on Silk Road or any other copycat website which pops up (as many have recently).  Moreover, it is not clear that Silk Road can even safely protect someone buying small quantities of illicit drugs for personal use.  More than likely, Silk Road is just another blip in the long durée of drug history.  What we can say, with some authority, is that Silk Road is yet another recent example that the trajectory of drug history—and the ways that we deal with drug “problems”—shows no signs of changing.

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9 thoughts on “Amazon.com for Illegal Drugs?

  1. Pingback: Amazon.com for Illegal Drugs? | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and … | BitJack21 Blog

  2. Pingback: Odds and Ends, Feds and States, Sheep on the Lamb « Drug WarRant

  3. Our federal government and the UN have been so busy fighting nature’s drugs,and failing,they have allowed a market they control to load up our medicine cabinets with poisons that are much more dangerous.

  4. Some simple facts:

    * A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

    * The massive majority of adults who use drugs do so recreationally – getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

    * A small minority of adults (5%) will always experience drug use as problematic. – approx. 3% are dependent on alcohol, and 1.5% dependent on other drugs.

    * Just as it was impossible to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is equally impossible to prevent any of the aforementioned drugs from being produced, distributed and widely used by those who desire to do so.

    * Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the drugs it prohibits.

    * Due to Prohibition (historically proven to be an utter failure at every level), the availability of most of these mood-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

    * Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement – even whole governments, while inducing an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

    * The involvement of the CIA in running Heroin from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan and Cocaine from Central America has been well documented by the 1989 Kerry Committee report, academic researchers Alfred McCoy and Peter Dale Scott, and the late journalist Gary Webb.

    * It’s not even possible to keep drugs out of prisons, but prohibitionists wish to waste hundreds of billions of our money in an utterly futile attempt to keep them off our streets.

    * The United States jails a larger percentage of it’s own citizens than any other country in the world, including those run by the worst totalitarian regimes, yet it has far higher use/addiction rates than most other countries.

    * Prohibition is the “Goose that laid the golden egg” and the lifeblood of terrorists as well as drug cartels. Both the Taliban and the terrorists of al Qaeda derive their main income from the prohibition-inflated value of the opium poppy. An estimated 44 % of the heroin produced in Afghanistan, with an estimated annual destination value of US $ 27 Billion, transits through Pakistan. Prohibition has essentially destroyed Pakistan’s legal economy and social fabric. – We may be about to witness the planet’s first civil war in a nation with nuclear capabilities. – Kindly Google: ‘A GLOBAL OVERVIEW OF NARCOTICS-FUNDED TERRORIST GROUPS’ Only those opposed, or willing to ignore these facts, want things the way they are.

    * The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it. – H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) American editor, essayist and philologist.

  5. Pingback: Week In Review: January 23 to January 27, 2012 | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society

  6. “More than likely, Silk Road is just another blip in the long durée of drug history.”

    Or harbinger of things to come. The Silk Road only exists because Amazon can’t (yet) service those markets.

    In there future there will be one store, Wal-Mart, and one online store, Amazon. Then there will only be Amazon. There can only be one.

  7. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the silk road in comparison with “real-world” prohibition is that virtual drug transactions are less likely to result in violence than street-corner drug transactions.

    I agree that in the 1980s, politicians blamed crack pushers for a broad range of societal problems, as they do with the silk road today. But I disagree that the 1980s buyer/seller dynamic had “nothing to do with” those societal problems. That unprecedented law enforcement crackdown against the crack trade was a major perpetuator of the gang violence which permeated inner cities during that time. When hundreds of thousands of drug sellers were locked up in the 80s, hundreds of thousands of violent turf-battles over opened-up street corners followed. Also, the overall opportunities of the millions of children with incarcerated parents became that much narrower. Those negative social consequences, claimed to be “drug-related”, were deeply connected with the war on drugs itself. The drug trade was a scape goat for societal problems in the 70s, but in the 80s and 90s the policy drug criminalization itself began to noticeably perpetuate the very same problems it claimed to correct.

    The problems of illicit drug sales in the physical world are luckily minimized in the virtual silk road. On the silk road, computers are the intermediary, preventing the violence and societal damage that is so deeply connected with prohibition. So let Schumer blame the silk road for any and every social problem, at least the internet makes it far more difficult for him to legislate policies that unintentionally create even greater social ills.

    • Julia,

      First, allow me to clarify. I do agree that an undoubted benefit of Silk Road traffic is that these transactions are much less likely to result in violence. Moreover, I also agree that the prison-industrial complexspurred by the notoriously punitive Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988proved devastating to generations of poor inner-city children. Worse still, the deadly cocktail of cracks introduction, the onset of AIDS, and the open embrace of draconian enforcement policies destabilized scores of communities, their residents, and their families.

      However, to suggest that the behavior of addicts and addict/sellers (those most affected by WOD policing) warranted such aggressive, inhumane enforcement policy is a leap I am unprepared to make. Nor is it accurate to suggest that these same historical actors initiated decisions for sweeps of buy-and-bust arrests which largely created the problems you speak of. These negative social consequences are deeply connected to the War on Drugs as you say, but these negative consequences are predicated on a *decision* to declare war on addicts and addict/sellers, not the mere fact that they exist in our communities.

      -Mike Durfee

      • Mike, I didn’t mean to suggest that the behavior of sellers and users warranted or initiated such aggressive and inhumane action. I just meant to comment on how even though we are again seeing politicians blaming drugs for everything rotten under the sun, it seems that internet transactions might halt the drug war’s vicious circle of rhetoric, draconian policies, then violence, then more rhetoric about that violence. 1980s drug warriors used fanatical rhetoric, claiming that drugs make people violent, dependent, lazy, uneducated, and destroy communities (which is of course untrue of drugs in themselves). Then the drug warrior’s, through their own draconian policies, created an environment with the perfect conditions to make drug users and sellers violent, dependent, etc. etc. This in turn gave them more political foder to create even harsher drug penalties, telling the public “see look! drugs really do make people violent!” when it was really their own bad prohibitionist policies that were the problem.

        In comparing that self-actualizing situation with a policy agenda for dismantling the silk road, I only wish to say I’m happy that Schumer’s fanatical rhetoric and any crackdown that might follow will not end up actualizing those very social problems they are claiming to correct. I think it’s a positive direction for illicit drug transactions to move in for those concerned about the WODs tendency to gain political traction based on problems the WOD itself has created.

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