Ross Ulbricht
drug war

Ross Ulbricht the founder of Silk Road, the massively successful online drug bazaar, stood in a New York courtroom and pled for mercy this morning (Friday 5/29/15). Claiming he’d changed, he said to the court: "I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble."

Ulbricht, a former Boy Scout, had become so caught up with his outlaw persona he believed he had murdered people and was satisfied with it.

Last week in a desperate attempt to reduce the amount of time he will spend in prison, the Silk Road founder’s legal team petitioned Judge Katherine Forrest to consider Silk Road a place that significantly reduced the danger of drug use to the user. A place where the crimes normally associated with the drug trade, like violence, are replaced with a system where the individual had control over the drug deal, not the dealer. 

Ulbricht’s lawyer Joshua Dratel said in the filing: 

“...Transactions on the Silk Road website were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”

Dratel even went so far as to claim the digital drug den, where anything from Xanax to raw opium, and MDMA could be purchased and delivered to your door, was an unprecedented application of harm reduction, a practice used to lessen the problems associated with drug use on the street, such as needle exchanges and anti-overdose kits. It’s a bit like saying, “Give me $10, I can hook you up with the purest smack in the hood! ... Ask anyone, this guy’s shit is organic and I’ll bring it to you.”

But the judge slammed Dratel’s appeal saying:

“Silk Road was about fulfilling demand….about creating demand.” 

In other words, there would be no harm to reduce, without the "Amazon of drugs" created by Ulbricht.

Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts, aka DPR) was found guilty last month of seven offenses he was charged with, including narcotics and money-laundering conspiracies, topping it off with a “kingpin” charge that puts the 31-year-old computer nerd from Texas up there with mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.

In a conventional drug deal, the chances of something bad happening are pretty good. Of course, it depends on what you’re buying and where. Scoring heroin on the street from a stranger might get you beaten up and robbed, or you might end up buying a handful of baby powder. Sending your personal assistant to buy cocaine from the limo driver downstairs, while you party on the roof of a hotel, may be slightly less dangerous—is that harm reduction? Surely a safer drug deal because the environment is better, or you didn’t get caught, burned or beaten up isn’t harm reduction? It’s still a drug deal. And as the judge pointed out, the only people safer in any given transaction were the users who the judge described as:

“A privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high-speed Internet connections.”

What about the fate of the coca leaf farmers growing under the watchful guns of cocaine cartels in Colombia? The drug mules are pawns in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with customs, and if that doesn’t keep you awake at night, ponder this: The terrifying steamroller of ISIS, currently crushing lives in Syria and Iraq, is funded by drug money.

Silk Road introduced several revolutionary elements that made dealers appear to be accountable for the first time. The biggest one being the eBay style ratings and reviews board where, with crowd-sourced information about drugs and dealers, it became easier to avoid the oregano cigarettes and the coke cut with baby laxatives. Subsequently, the dealers that survived, prospered, and were trusted by the community—it could be argued, by sidelining the shadier elements—reduced the harm of the enterprise. 

Crowd-funded information also took the form of advice about drug use. How to "fix" drugs properly, what to expect on your first acid trip, what to do if you freaked out or someone with you overdosed—a wealth of information from many more users than could be found in the traditional clandestine nature of the drug trade; potentially life-saving information, if you’re committed to experimenting with illegal drugs. 

Other forums included medical advice from physicians themselves—famously consultations with Dr. X. He said in an article with Vice that he himself used drugs and regularly answered questions from drug users about the harms or merits of taking both legal and illegal drugs. Dr. X, whose real name is Dr. Fernando Caudevilla, described this as harm reduction. Vice described the doctor as a Spanish family physician in Madrid. In the interview, he offered to test the quality of drugs through the Spanish organization Energy Control which, unconnected to Silk Road, recently stated on its website:

“We also offer customized, non-moralistic and scientific drug information directed to drug users. The Drug Checking Service has operated in Spain since 1999 and now will also be offered internationally. We believe that Online Deep Web Drug Markets are an emerging trend and we want to spread our preventive work there, from a risk reduction perspective.”

When the volunteer work on Silk Road became too great for Dr. X, he announced his departure but Ulbricht kept him on at $500 a week to continue keeping Silk Road safe. It’s moments like this where Ross Ulbricht, the libertarian and idealist shone through. 

At some point during his time running the drug marketplace, Ulbricht was corrupted. To maintain the secrecy of his identity and the security of the Silk Road, he ordered what he believed were the executions of six people. As reported in Wired Magazine, while in communications with "Nob," a DEA agent whom Ulbricht thought was a drug cartel boss, Ulbricht decided a fatal course of action for a Silk Road colleague, whom he believed had been flipped after his arrest by the DEA. He said in chat logs with the undercover agent:

“Never killed a man or had one killed before, but it is the right move in this case…How much will it cost?”

The DEA agent sent Ulbricht faked photos of his colleague’s corpse and Ulbricht/Dread Pirate Roberts sent him $80,000.

The Feds dropped all the murder charges against DPR as, just like the DEA agent, the other killings were probably faked by scam artists to fleece an increasingly paranoid Ulbricht of thousands of dollars in Bitcoins. Nonetheless, Ulbricht, a former Boy Scout, had become so caught up with his outlaw persona he believed he had murdered people and was satisfied with it. He had become his alter ego, Dread Pirate Roberts (a character from the children's film, The Princess Bride).

But it wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the website, Ross Ulbricht was characterized by his peers and his own diaries as a high-minded libertarian, with a belief in the good of people. The aims of Silk Road were governed by a strict code of ethics. Though some of the early users of Silk Road lobbied DPR for complete freedom for any transaction, Ulbricht was adamant:

“Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else.”

This meant no sales of weapons, child porn, stolen goods, fraudulent degrees, or IDs, though it appears most of these items were for sale when the site was shutdown. It is all the more tragic that Ulbricht was corrupted by his own experiment. Perhaps, his own self-imposed isolation was the cause of it—his double life as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Or perhaps it was simply greed. Ulbricht took a 10% cut of every transaction through Silk Road, which at the end of the road was worth millions of dollars.

The federal task force that unmasked "The Pirate" was brought to Ulbricht’s true identity by his own carelessness in the inception of the site. In early conversations, when Silk Road was just an idea for a community, his thoughts were less than anonymous. He was a self-taught coder whose programming was less than watertight and holes appeared in security from time-to-time. That, and the untrustworthiness of criminals in his system, allowed law enforcement to take over their identities, or force them to cooperate, leading to Ulbricht’s demise.

If Silk Road had been shutdown sooner in the early idealistic days, perhaps Ulbricht’s defense of harm reduction would have stood up. As the judge passed down the sentence she said:

"You are no better a person than any other drug dealer."

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about how the DEA under Michele Leonahrt was rotten to the core as well as Uber and MADD joining forces.

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the online drug market, gets life without parole.
By Neville Elder
Heaven Knows What

Director Josh Safdie spotted the Elysian beauty, Arielle Holmes, then 19, in a polka dot dress and sheer black stockings. She was headed into the subway in New York City’s Diamond District where Safdie was mapping out a film he and his brother Benny were making that was set in the area. On impulse, Safdie ran over to Holmes and told her he wanted to talk to her about starring in a movie. The encounter itself sounds like it stepped right off the silver screen, like in Purple Rose of Cairo. 

But much to Salfdie’s surprise, Holmes showed up for their meeting in scruffy shorts, a raggedy T-shirt, and on the nod. He soon learned Holmes was homeless, a heroin addict, and hooked on a self-destructive relationship with a junkie named Ilya. 

Safdie still saw something in Holmes and suggested she start a diary and get clean. Her journal pages turned into a to-be-published memoir, Mad Love in New York City, and it became the basis for the Safdie brothers’ indie, Heaven Knows What. 

Watching this flick was like rubbernecking at a disastrous wreck. It depicts the decrepit, unmanageable lives of homeless teens on drugs with all of the high drama and disturbing situations. Although similar to films like Leaving Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream, Panic in Needle ParkHeaven Knows What is original enough and hypnotizing.

Holmes stars as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself. Actor Caleb Landry Jones plays her sick and twisted boyfriend Ilya. Rounding out the triad of central characters is a street kid named Buddy Duress who plays Mike, the heroin dealer Holmes manipulates. 

At the start of the disturbing tale, we watch Harley (Holmes) slash her wrists in front of Ilya. In drug addict logic she decides that dying is her only way to show him her undying love. As blood gushes from her wrist Ilya the loser says he doesn’t feel like accompanying her to the hospital—at least the guy calls 911. Despite every creepy thing he does, her love for him remains undiminished. It’s the kind of dysfunctional romance that sends people screaming to Al-Anon.

The Fix caught up with Josh Safdie to hear how he got a junkie off heroin and in the process saved his own life, too.

What made you feel it was a safe bet to work with a heroin addict?

Arielle isn’t my first friend or family member—I consider her part of my family now—who battled addiction. I think people become susceptible to becoming addicted because their brains are abnormal. They’re medicating themselves. To get high is obviously alluring and people get trapped. The kind of people that can become an addict just get caught up in their own propaganda.

You mean they're putting a spin on what they're doing, like telling themselves they need a drug?

Yes. She didn’t even see how bad her life with Ilya was until she saw the movie.

Was Arielle still getting high during filming?

While we were shooting [the film] she was taking methadone to get off heroin but I think methadone is an evil drug. It’s even more addicting than heroin. 

So, what allowed you to trust Arielle? Addicts are notorious thieves and unreliable.

My brother Benny and I had this deal with Ari. She said she really wanted to do the movie so we were paying her to write and act in the movie. She said she’d do it if we put her in rehab afterwards. 

Most addicts have a lot of stops and starts before getting clean. Was it a straight line for Arielle?

After we finished the movie, she fell off and was shooting up a lot. She had a pretty big habit. At one point, she went to a detox but she only stayed there 12 hours. So, she went on methadone. After we almost finished the film, she wanted to get off the methadone. But then she stayed on it because we needed to wait a month before we shot the ending. 

She hadn’t liked the ending in the script. She changed the movie with her performance. She broke a window on the bus. That wasn’t scripted. Then we had to rewrite the beginning and we figured we’d edit the film and figure out the ending. I couldn’t send her to rehab and then ask her to come back and act in this movie again for many, many reasons. I couldn’t ask Ari to go down to Florida, get clean and then come back and act with these people. It would be a waste of everything and not fair to her.

You mean because it would undo any recovery she managed to get from the rehab to then be around that addict world again?

Exactly. But then during that month we were editing, she fell off and was using again. She got to the rehab in Florida, and at two in the morning, after I’d dropped her off, she was calling me from a highway. She’d escaped. I heard that terror. I heard that panic. I hate that tone of voice. She was going through hardcore withdrawal. They gave her some Suboxone because they hadn’t waited long enough for the heroin to clear her system. Kicking is no fun and there’s no way to make it not painful. She didn’t want to go through the pain and she was asking me to come and get her. I had to say, “No.”

Wow. Good for you! You did a real mitzvah in your life. 

I don’t really look at it like that but yeah, everybody needs a sense of purpose. The trick is trying to tell your brain that you’re not going to find the purpose in drugs, you’re going to find it in something else. That’s what I did with moviemaking. 

You saved her. 

She really saved me.

What do you mean?

Before the movie I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t know where I was going. My closeness to her and that world, it was kind of a reminder for me not to go that route.

Did you ever consider giving up on filmmaking?

Never. It’s my drug, man. 

Caleb Landry Jones was so believable as Ilya. Did he have a past that included heroin?

No. He just spent a lot of time hanging out with everyone in that scene, especially Ilya. They spent a lot of time together. They were like inseparable, which wasn’t always a good thing. They got drunk a lot. And sometimes things got really dark.

Was Ilya upset about how he was portrayed as such a bad guy?

No, he was proud of it. He’s actually a really dark guy. He was, I mean. You know, he died. He was a real punk though—into all of this black metal music. Dark, dark stuff. Ari has a really dark side, too. She was attracted to that darkness in Ilya. This movie isn’t just about being addicted to heroin but also about being addicted to a person.  

How much of the story was fictionalized?

Things were twisted and warped and characters were combined but for the most part it’s true to life, although the chronology of events shifted a little bit.

Are you and Arielle still close?

Oh my God, too close sometimes.

Did you ever have romantic feelings for each other?

No, no, no. Never. It was weird but it’s something that never entered either of our minds. In fact, we talked about that. She has no girlfriends. All of her friends are guys.

Do you and Arielle talk about her recovery?

Yeah, we talk about everything but she is like a punk. Right now she has this concept, she doesn’t think that addiction is a real thing. You’ll have an argument with her. I know you will because I have arguments with her. She wouldn’t say that you’re still an addict if you have so many years sober. 

Is Arielle taking acting seriously now?

She’s in another film already. She did a film over the winter and she’s doing another film now—a big film. They’re both pretty big films.

What other projects are you working on now?

One is this comedy about Buddy [Duress], you know, the guy who played Mike. It’s called Good Time where he gets out of prison and he’s trying to live a straight life but it’s very hard for him. 

Duress just got out of prison, right?

Yeah. So we’re kind of waiting to see how that goes. Then [my brother and I] are still trying to do the Diamond District film, which we’d originally set out to do when I met Arielle. That’s about a manic gambling addict. A third project is about a gay tomato-can boxer. That’s a guy who gets paid to lose. Boxers labeled as “cans” bleed during fights, like leaking tomato juice.

Heaven Knows What opens in theaters today, May 29.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about the rise and fall and rise of a gangster cop.

When director Josh Safdie approached Arielle Holmes on the street about starring in his movie, he didn't know she was a homeless heroin addict.
By Dorri Olds
pro voices

There has long been an unfortunate tension among treatment providers between harm reductionists and abstinence-based clinicians and programs. But in addiction treatment, stubborn adherence to a rigidly held treatment philosophy tends to do a disservice to our patients. Jeannie Little, a seminal figure in the development of harm reduction theory and practice, asserts that abstinence is one of many treatment goals that can rest comfortably under the harm reduction umbrella….Richard Juman

Harm reduction therapy is poised to be the umbrella for treatment of substance use and co-occurring disorders in the 21st century. First developed in the 1980s as a response to hepatitis and HIV, it is the most accessible treatment for substance use and misuse to date. It lowers the threshold even further than Alcoholics Anonymous, previously the most accessible recovery support system: “All you need for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking.” To belong in a harm reduction community, one need have no desire to change at all! A person can be curious, reluctant, determined to continue a lifelong relationship with substances, desirous of minimizing consequences, or desperate to find help that is not like what he or she has experienced before. Debra Rothschild aptly calls harm reduction “the third wave” of substance use treatment.  

A paradigm shift such as this one—from the disease model of addiction and 12-step programs which demand lifelong abstinence from all psychoactive substances, typically through surrender to a higher power, to harm reduction, which promotes empowerment, self-determination, and a wide range of options for change—is shaking the foundations of the last 50 years of addiction treatment. What is so revolutionary is not, however, the battle of opposing forces.  

Disease model proponents and harm reductionists alike have made the mistake of polarizing the two approaches. While disease model proponents often have difficulty with the idea of non-abstinent goals, harm reductionists have been saying all along, “Abstinence is a harm reduction goal, it just isn’t the only one.” We have been busy creating a very wide umbrella under which all goals are welcome and any positive change is considered success (with thanks to Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance). With a menu of options as a core value, harm reduction can hold abstinence and 12-step recovery models under the same umbrella as safer use, reduction of use, moderation, and variations on abstinence. Harm reduction moves the fundamental values of “recovery” from powerlessness and abstinence to empowerment and choice. As long as a person freely chooses a 12-step program of recovery, in a landscape of many options, that choice falls within the scope of harm reduction.  

Rather than posing a threat to 12-step programs, harm reduction offers a larger umbrella under which all people and all options for change can coexist. Because it explores the reasons that people use drugs, harm reduction covers more territory in understanding substance use and misuse. Because it is grounded in the principles of public health, it addresses all of the harms that can occur in a drug-using life, regardless of whether a person’s use rises to the level of a disorder (“addiction”). Because it combines psychotherapy with substance use treatment, it addresses both substance use and the issues that lie behind it. Because it embraces an infinite number of change and recovery options, it adheres to the highest medical ethics of client choice and self-determination.  

Many characteristics of harm reduction therapy make it the ideal umbrella for substance use treatment in the 21st century.

Harm reduction therapy is non-polarizing. Until now, both the moral model (manifested in the War on Drugs) and the disease models of addiction have been predicated on prohibition— "Just Say No.” They have taken an all-or-nothing stance to substance use. Characterized by terms such as “clean,” “dirty,” and “in the program,” or “out there,” one is either an “addict/alcoholic” who will face “jails, institutions, or death” if she keeps using, or a “normie” who can drink without consequence. These terms trap the substance user in a binary identity dilemma and a dichotomous choice to belong to one community or the other.

Harm reduction, by contrast, holds that people have a relationship with drugs that is more or less healthy at different moments in time. Substance use occurs on a continuum from no use to benign use to chaotic use, with many points in between. Harms can occur at any point and should be addressed, regardless of whether a person is “addicted.” I have seen many people who have problematic relationships with alcohol but not with marijuana, or who get in trouble with speed but drink moderately, including after they quit using speed. I have worked with people whose use is chaotic, then they learn to moderate, yet they still have the occasional binge. I have also worked with many people whose goal is abstinence from all psychoactive substances, and they work beautifully alongside others whose goal is non-problematic use.

Harm reduction therapy is trauma-informed. The majority of people who reach the level of chaotic substance use have histories of trauma, and the first ethic of harm reduction therapy is to "Do No Harm." This means that we do nothing that could be re-traumatizing. Such things include exercising authority and control, asking intrusive questions, being unpredictable, or using shaming language or techniques. What we do is remain mindful of trauma and its effects, understand the medicinal properties of drugs, treat each person with sensitivity, use grounding techniques when a client is overwhelmed, and refer to trauma specialists when we assess that symptoms of trauma are dominating the client’s experience.  

Harm reduction therapy is a co-occurring disorders treatment model. Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders are the rule, not the exception. And when harm reduction therapy is practiced by mental health professionals, all issues can be addressed at the same time by the same clinician.

Harm reduction therapy is inclusive. "Come as you are" is the mantra of harm reduction therapy—anyone is welcome, regardless of their relationship with drugs, their goals for future use, and their motivation to change. Any route to change is supported, and every positive change applauded. In other words, harm reduction therapy meets people at their stage of change. Using the Transtheoretical Model of Change, harm reduction therapists understand that people are at a different stage of readiness to change for each issue that they bring into treatment. At the Center for Harm Reduction Therapy, we tend to start with the issues that the client is most motivated to address. For example, a man came to us with a major heroin habit that had caused him to lose his job and alienate his partner and children. His partner had kicked him out and he was sleeping at his mother’s house. His most pressing concern was to re-establish contact with his children because he foresaw that the damage to them would last longer than any other harm. We facilitated the beginning of a conversation by advising him not to make promises. Once he could visualize a realistic way to connect with his children, his thinking became less panicky and he began making small, sustainable changes.

Harm reduction therapy educates everyone about drugs and safe use practices, thereby reaching far more people and preventing a great deal more harm. Harm reduction does not take a position on whether drugs are good, bad or indifferent. It depends. Some drugs (typically the legal ones!) are more toxic than others. The experience of the user, as well as the emergence of problems, depends on his or her physical, mental, emotional, relational, cultural, and environmental context. Being knowledgeable about the interaction of the drug, the user (set), and the setting (Zinberg), harm reduction therapists can respond appropriately to any substance using situation.

Harm reduction therapy is client-directed. The client, not the therapist or counselor, defines the nature of his or her problems. Some people identify self-medication of physical or emotional pain as the main driver of their substance use; others believe that a spiritual journey, an enhancement of physical and emotional experience, or partying led to trouble; still others are most comfortable with the idea that they have a disease. Harm reduction also shifts the emphasis from program-directed to self-directed goals, steps, and outcomes. Finally, the client sets the pace and the intensity of treatment, with more or less input from the therapist. 

Harm reduction therapy supports three broad avenues of change: safety, moderation, and abstinence. Safety means reducing the harm to oneself and others. Not drinking and driving, sterile syringes and safe crack pipes, taking care of the kids, and loading up on condoms when one’s aim is to party, are but a few of the harm reducing possibilities that harm reductionists keep foremost in our minds. In regard to moderation and abstinence—some people moderate their use of all drugs, while others abstain from all; some abstain from some and moderate others, while still others abstain or moderate most of the time, and then enjoy the occasional episode of “determined drunkenness.” Ken Anderson (How to Change your Drinking) is promoting the idea that “absence of problematic substance use” should be the standard of “recovery.” 

Implications for Treatment 

During my 35 years as a social worker and 25 as a therapist working with substance users and people with co-occurring disorders, I have studied my clients to understand what is most helpful to them. I have concluded that the important question is not whether a person is or is not powerless, or whether he or she should or should not be abstinent from one or all of her drugs. The answers to these questions change over time.

The crucial thing to assess is the extent to which a person needs containment, structure, and direction, versus needing to explore his relationship with substances free of outside influence. In other words, at times, people (and that includes all of us!) need someone to tell them what to do, at other times they need to work with someone who has the capacity for infinite flexibility and whose role is to facilitate their own exploration.

In Part 2 of this article, Patt Denning and I will discuss how we go about helping each person find the right level of structure vs. flexibility, direction vs. facilitation. We will give examples of how this works with different clients. In Part 3, I will challenge harm reductionists, abstinence proponents, and 12-step advocates to join together and create a real menu of options for people who use and misuse alcohol and other drugs.

Jeannie Little, LCSW, CGP is the co-founder and executive director of the Harm Reduction Therapy Center in San Francisco. She is a licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist. Since 1990, she has been at the forefront of developing the harm reduction treatment model for people with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders. With a long background in homeless and housing services, she adapted harm reduction therapy as a community treatment model that has reached thousands of marginalized people with little access to mental health care. She is also considered one of the creators of harm reduction groups. She provides training and ongoing consultation to professional and peer staff in outpatient clinics, drop-in centers, and supportive housing. She is co-author of Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol and Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy, 2nd Edition.

Can abstinence be considered a part of harm reduction?
By Jeannie Little LCSW