The End of the Silk Road: Will Shutting Down the "eBay for Drugs" Cause More Than Harm Than Good?

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October 2, 2013 - By Meghan Ralston

The BBC, Guardian , New York Times and others are reporting the seizure of the anonymous international drug marketplace website Silk Road by U.S. federal agents - despite the U.S. government shutdown.

This futile effort to reduce drug consumption and sales is just the most recent example of the drug war theater, designed to get headlines but not accomplish much. It is becoming increasingly common knowledge that the drug war as we know it is a failure. Just this week, research published in the BMJ Open confirmed:

“With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing.”

Silk Road, referred to as “the eBay for drugs,” has been used, successfully and discreetly, by countless people around the world since February 2011. Operating as an above-ground source for a variety of drugs, ranging from marijuana to heroin and virtually everything in between, Silk Road created a safe environment, free of weapons and violence, where people could acquire drugs.

The site’s existence reinforces how even people who are dependent or addicted can make rational choices, even if we like to imagine them as being totally irrational. Given the choice of quickly and easily accessing drugs in potentially sketchy or dangerous neighborhoods, or buying them safely on-line but having to wait, many users prefer privacy, security and a wait to the alternative.

Rather than a heinous crime, using Silk Road could be seen as a more responsible approach to drug sales, a peaceable alterative to the deadly violence so commonly associated with the drug war. For over two years, countless people around the world accessed the site, spending an estimated $1.2 billion in BitCoins, the majority of it being spent on drugs. And it all happened without much fanfare. People bought drugs from drug sellers with products that had been rated by other consumers, people consumed their drugs, life went on. If drugs were not prohibited substances, none of this would be remarkable. It’s only that the drugs in question were illegal that makes any of this headline news.

Seizing and shutting down Silk Road will do nothing to stop demand for drugs, nor will it end drug sales or drug use. It won’t help anyone get into treatment, it won’t teach anyone about dangerous combinations of drugs.

You know it, I know it, the federal government knows it, the leaders of countries around the world know it. We all know that our whole approach to drug prohibition has been a failure.

This latest act of U.S. drug war theater seems a desperate act by a government that knows we’re on the verge of a more sensible, less costly way of managing and controlling the flow, and use, of drugs.

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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