At the End of the Silk Road

By Neville Elder 05/29/15

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, gets life without parole.

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Ross Ulbricht the founder of Silk Road, the massively successful online drug bazaar, stood in a New York courtroom and pled for mercy on Friday (5/29/15) morning. 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."

Last week in a desperate attempt to reduce the amount of time he will spend in prison, The Silk Road founder’s legal team had 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 has control over the drug deal, not the dealer. 

Ulbricht’s lawyer Joshua Dratel says in the filing:

“..Transactions on the Silk Road web site 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 phrase more often used with attempts 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 a.k.a. Dread Pirate Roberts a.k.a. DPR was found guilty last month of 7 offenses he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and 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 of 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, 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 Columbia? The drug mules, pawns in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with customs, and if that doesn’t keep you awake at night ponder on 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 laxative. Subsequently, the dealers that survived prospered and were trusted by the community and, 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 lifesaving 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 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’s  his real name is Dr. Fernando Caudevilla and he described this as harm reduction. Vice describes the doctor as a Spanish family physician in Madrid and in the interview offers to test the quality of drugs through the Spanish organization Energy Control which, unconnected to Silk Road, recently stated on it’s 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, and he announced his departure, 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 shine 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. In communications with ‘Nob,’ a DEA agent who Ulbricht  thought was a drug cartel boss, reported in Wired Magazine, Ulbricht decided a fatal course of action for a Silk Road colleague, who he believed had been flipped after his arrest by 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 Bit Coins. 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 is 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 items were for sale when the site was shut down. So 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 who’s 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, led to Ulbricht’s demise.

If Silk Road had been shut down 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.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.