Blog Post

Ross Ulbricht Deserves Another Chance; 'Silk Road' Was Safer Than the Streets

Christopher Soda

A year has passed since Ross Ulbricht, founder of Silk Road, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. An appeal was filed last month by his lawyers, petitioning the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in NY for a new trial. They draw on a long list of arguments, hoping this time around they’ll be afforded a fairer platform from which to defend their client. As Ulbricht awaits his ultimate fate, the government mounts another bloated attempt to defend the failed drug war policies of bygone days. Let’s explore how these markets signify an historic evolution in drug control.

Harm reduction

Prohibition has never kept people safe; its “just say no” attitude proving more dangerous than the drugs themselves.  What has proved effective is providing honest and balanced drug education, free choice, and regulatory measures in place to reduce harm. These markets do just that. As Jamie Bartlett wrote in his Salon article:

"Restless competition is always good for customers. The offline drugs market as it stands is all local monopolies and cartels, run by dealers and gangsters. By introducing clever payment mechanisms, feedback systems, and real competition, power shifted to the users."

In a world operating on the modus operandi of prohibition, users are often left in the dark and all sorts of other precarious situations; purchasing at music festivals is one glaring example. “The overwhelming consensus among users of the Silk Road,” Bartlett realized, “was that the quality of the product was far higher and its purity far more reliable than anything you’d find on a street corner.” Goodbye stranger-danger, dark alleyways, and unknown/unlabeled substances. The Global Drug Survey of 2015 confirmed this, stating “reduced rates of exposure to violence, less adulterated drugs, more confidence in product quality and removal from street dealing were clear benefits.” Will this access lead some to experimenting with other drugs? Sure, maybe. What’s clear however, is within this system, people are able to better regulate and reduce harm associated with their drug use.

Affords cognitive liberty

Even if access to these markets leads some to experiment with a wider range of drugs, so what? Here at the Drug Policy Alliance “we promote safety while upholding the sovereignty of individuals over their own minds and bodies,” assuming absent harm to others. Speaking at Horizons this past fall, Charlotte Walsh, a lecturer and activist lawyer, spoke to the issue of cognitive liberty and maintains that exploration of one’s own consciousness is an individual right. It is her firmly held belief that through a human rights framework, the drug policy reform movement can be effective in increasing people’s individual autonomy through law. For now, these markets suffice.

Acknowledge and Regulate

Despite closing down the Silk Road (and many others), these markets are proliferating. Like the mythical hydra, every time a head is cut off, another one grows. The drug wars failed interdiction tactics become clearer when you consider that more people bought drugs off these markets after the road was closed. This is another wake up call to speed up our divorce with prohibition and begin to integrate what we at the Drug Policy Alliance are working toward in the future – a) ending the criminalization of drug possession and use and b) identifying and building ways of legal purchase from controlled sources. When this becomes the reality, a lot of these symptomatic manifestations of prohibition, such as cryptomarkets, will vanish.

I hope Ulbricht’s appeal is successful and he sees his life sentence overturned for a more humane outcome. I stand with him and for all the people who see another way.

Christopher Soda is an executive associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.

View more blog posts.