By Ciarán Weir
Ross Ulbricht, founder of the darknet marketplace Silk Road has been sentenced. Convicted of conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering, sales from Silk Road are thought to be £131m. There’s no doubt that the court made an example of Ulbricht, giving him two life sentences. The court heard from the parents of two people who died from drug overdoses, to whom Ulbricht expressed his remorse.
The high profile case of Ulbricht reproduces the moral conundrum of how we enforce drug policy and how the issue of drugs is unsuited for the criminal justice system, which should be an issue of public health. By considering and enforcing drugs as a criminal justice issue it does little but harm those who use drugs in the first place.
With a booming global drug market valued at an estimated $435 Billion, we would do well to rethink the issue of drugs with rationality and respect for human rights, public health and scientific reasoning.
The reality is that new and emerging cryptomarkets such as Silk Road or Agora make drug transactions safer, eliminating the associated violence by both anonymising and professionalising drug trading. This is made possible by the very nature of the anonymity provided by the Darknet and also by customer reviews and ratings similar to those found on consumer sites such as Amazon and eBay. This has and will continue to revolutionise the way people buy and sell drugs, with an increased emphasis on customer service.
There are sections on some of these cryptomarket drugs sites which promote harm reduction information. Ironically, this goes further than most governments are willing to in protecting the health of those of use drugs. Drug purity and quality levels are often higher when purchased from Silk Road-style sites, meaning people are more likely to escape the dangerous adulterants that street drugs are often cut with, and making it a better option in terms of limiting drug related deaths from substances such as PMA.
The reality is that the global drugs trade is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Despite new challenges presented by NPS (New Psychoactive Substances) or ‘Legal Highs’ and the resurgence of opium production in the southeast Asian ‘Golden Triangle’, it is clear that current drug policy is not equipped to deal with these issues. The Ulbricht case highlights the fact that policy alone cannot control the demand or supply of drugs, prohibition remains a highly profitable business for cartels who operate with increasingly sophisticated business models and modes of trafficking, such as narco-submarines. Drug markets and trade routes are evolving to meet increasing demand and the question of how long it will take for drug policy to evolve remains unanswered.
If we were to refocus our efforts on harm reduction strategies for those who use drugs there would be far fewer drug related deaths. This is true for both illegal and legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco which are dangerous substances, despite their legality.
A better way to control drugs would be to promote health-based, harm reduction messages where people have full control over their own bodies with access to vital information about the drugs they use providing them with the agency to make well informed choices.
Proper regulation by governments would remove power, money and control from cartels which would lead to a drop in criminal activity associated with the global drug trade, bringing an end to the bloody, and increasingly futile, ‘war on drugs’.
@CiaranWeir is the chapter leader for Students for Sensible Drug Policy Manchester. He is also the project leader for DrugSafe, a harm reduction project aimed to protect students from the harms of drugs.