By Emily Pont
Since the ‘War On Drugs’ was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, we have blatantly observed this severely destructive regime oppress the lives of countless numbers of drug users. Said to have been implemented to reduce the production, distribution and consumption of illegal narcotics, this system has been utterly counterproductive. It has caused far much more oppression and aggression in society than producing any positive outcome and this has resulted in mass incarceration, an increase in demand for these substances (consequently increasing cost) and wasting billions of dollars a year to imprison drug offenders, over 50 percent of which are non-violent. With low-level drug offenders constituting over 20 percent of the total Federal Prison population, we desperately need to realise that the ‘War On Drugs’ has been an absolute failure, with grave repercussions.
It needs to be acknowledged that prohibition of narcotics and criminalization of users are strategies that will very scarcely reduce the processes of the drug trade. Instead, they have been proven to increase the dangers that can occur when purchasing drugs and contribute to the ever expanding militarisation of the police force. A large number of those dedicated to enforcing the ‘War On Drugs’ have been witnessed to act with overbearing authority and use extraneous violence in order to achieve this. In light of these outcomes, it is paramount that we urgently reform the way in which we approach drug possession and use.
Online markets offering the sale of narcotics are a step forward in this reform. Silk Road was an open-market online economic experiment which was ethically governed by a non-aggression principle. This was a politically driven platform, and an economic simulation giving people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live without the systemic use of force, empowering people to have privacy and anonymity. Despite the demonising and sensationalistic narrative popular media outlets have portrayed regarding the website, Silk Road had in reality been exceedingly productive and beneficial in reducing harm, providing professional advice, and allowing narcotic users a safe and secure outlet to express and/or overcome their drug use without the fear of conviction and criminalisation. When we compare the two it becomes clear that, in contrast to the devastating affects the drug war has brought upon society, Silk Road achieved vastly more positive results regarding drug use in its short life time than the drug war has accomplished over its 40 year rule of oppression.
From a basic standpoint, it is clear that the digital nature of Silk Road made purchasing narcotics far safer. Without the forced buyer and seller interactions many drug users have to go through, Silk Road allowed users the safety of anonymity and cut out physical communication between buyers and sellers that could result in threatening behaviour and violence, which is typically associated with street dealings. Silk Road, much like mainstream trading sites like Amazon.com, provided a feedback system, which allowed users to comment on their experiences with certain sellers, and the quality of the product they received.
While the International Journal of Drug Policy conducted research into the process of purchasing from the website and the interactions that took place between vendors and sellers, a vendor on Silk Road had stated that “Reputation on Silk Road is what keeps vendors in business. Your reputation is open to all. The seller who wants good business on Silk Road has to try and make every customer happy. Customer service has never been this good on the street market.”
Silk Road took purchasing drugs off the streets where there is potential for dangerous outcomes, and allowed users the ability to purchase high-quality, clean and untainted products from a reliable vendor based to a certain extent on customer feedback. A feature which greatly reduced the dangers when taking drugs. In his declaration, Tom Bingham, researcher of the user experiences of vendors and consumers on Silk Road, stated “In contrast to street drug markets, the Silk Road site operated a professional dispute resolution mechanism to resolve disputes between buyers and sellers.”
This statement reiterates the way in which Silk Road resolved issues peacefully and efficiently, overall providing a vastly safer, more reliable, and secure way of purchasing narcotics. Whereas the War on Drugs has resulted in an increase of brutality across the globe, with gangs and cartels resulting to settling disputes through violent means.
In addition to the safety that Silk Road provided whilst purchasing drugs, the website was also focused on harm reduction when consuming narcotics. With many forums actively discussing how to take certain substances safely regarding purity of the product, dosage amounts, etc. . Forum members appeared well informed around drug use, focused on educating individuals, sharing advice and experiences. The site also included forums dedicated to members wishing to get support and assistance while quitting their drug use. Professional advice was shared on the Silk Road forums by ‘DoctorX’, an experienced physician specialising in the area of drugs and addiction, whom Dread Pirate Roberts paid $500 dollars per week to answer questions and advise members on the safety when using.
As a result of my personal experiences working with customers on the Silk Road site, and monitoring the site’s drug safety forums, I have first hand knowledge that Silk Road provided site users with the tools to take drugs in a safer and more informed manner, espoused harm reduction ethos which was reflected in the individual buyer-seller transactions on the site and in the community created on the site’s forums.
Dread Pirate Roberts also sought to partner with me to send the drugs sold on the Silk Road out to laboratories for independent testing as part of an effort to ensure that only safe, non-toxic substances were being sold on Silk Road. – Dr. Fernando Caudevilla (DoctorX).
However, this project was still in the process of organisation when the FBI shut down the website in October of 2013.
People will continue to produce and consume drugs with prohibition and criminalization, as has been observed by the sheer non-effectiveness and counter-productivity of the drug war. It is time to completely re-think our strategy in handling this issue. Legalisation and harm reduction methods have been proven to be a successful approach to drug use. If we look at Switzerland, for example, its innovative policy of providing drug users with free methadone and clean needles has drastically reduced deaths and cut crime rates. Health experts have state that this should serve as a global model. Silk Road took the danger out of drug transactions and eliminated the violence that accompanies face to face buyer and seller communications. Silk Road assisted users in making informed decisions regarding the purchase and safety of products as well giving access to relevant and more comprehensive information.
Meghan Ralston, a former harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote that Silk Road was “a peaceable alternative to the often deadly violence so commonly associated with the global drug war and street drug transactions, in particular.”
Switzerland’s drug policy illustrates the progress that can be made and is a clear example of an effective and humane way to approach drug use. Drug use should be handled as a health issue and not a criminal one if we want to effectively reduce harm. The continuity of the drug war will inevitably bring further incarceration of non-violent offenders serving outrageous mandatory minimum sentences for victimless crimes, and throwing away billions of dollars to fund a system that has only caused systemic human rights violations and oppression. Silk Road created a productive way of approaching drug use that we so desperately needed. Taking drugs off the streets, reducing risk, and providing information.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to continue in a losing battle, a never-ending cycle of oppression created by the War on Drugs, or do we want to learn from the productive action Silk Road took in order to revolutionize the drug trade?