Caracotsios: Silk Road shows need for authorities

Caracotsios: Silk Road shows need for authorities

Julian Caracotsios, Assistant Opinion Editor

The War on Drugs is considered by many to be an abject failure. Our prisons teem with inmates incarcerated from drug offenses, marijuana use is ubiquitous and at times it seems like the billions of dollars spent have gone straight down the drain. I am quite skeptical of the approach the United States has taken toward dealing with drug abuse, but at times I’m forced to remember that as much as everyone loves to hate and complain about the cops, we need them.

Oct. 2 was one of those times, when the FBI shut down the anonymous online market known as “Silk Road.” Though anything could be bought and sold on Silk Road, using a system of virtual currency known as Bitcoin, the site was infamous for being a source of “anything ranging from prescription drugs to heroin,” which makes up about 36 percent of all sales. According to The Guardian, as of March 2013, of the more than 10,000 items listed on Silk Road, about 7,000 were drugs. Fortunately, child pornography and weapons sales are prohibited, but heroin and other narcotics are not.

The FBI has now apprehended the man it believes to be the mastermind behind Silk Road, a 29-year-old American by the name of Ross Ulbricht, although eight more have been arrested as of Oct. 8. Ulbricht, known to his roommates as “Josh” and the online community as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” conducted his business at his home computer or lounging at an internet cafe in San Francisco. His roommates had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and to them he “shared a temporary home and had few possessions,” despite amassing a fortune of $80 million in Bitcoin. 

I had heard of Silk Road before all of this hit the news, but hadn’t thought too much of it. Just another way to get illegal drugs, right? As a matter of fact – as The Atlantic claims – it’s likely that purchasing these drugs online, where one can read user reviews much like and one need not enter the dangerous physical world of drug dealing, is a much safer alternative to the traditional black market. I’m no expert on the drug market, but I’m comfortable agreeing with them for now. At the same time, however, I fully believe that Silk Road should have been shut down, and can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that it has been.

No, I don’t believe this because I think the entire online drug industry has been destroyed — there are other websites similar to Silk Road and more will certainly rise to take its place. The pragmatic effects of the Silk Road bust can be debated by people more knowledgeable than me. However, what I do think absolutely needs to be enforced is the notion that the government should have some degree of authority over economic transactions.

Silk Road thrived because it used an encryption system called “Tor” to hide its users’ identities, which made it effectively impossible to track who was buying and selling what. Some libertarians and internet activists hailed this as the ultimate freedom from undue regulation. A Gawker profile of the site back in 2011 quoted its administrator — who was then completely anonymous — as saying, “The state is the primary source of violence, oppression, theft and all forms of coercion … Stop funding the state with your tax dollars and direct your productive energies into the black market.”

That kind of thinking, above all, is what we should be weary of. It sounds liberating and lofty in theory, but in reality, we have no idea what can of worms we’d be opening up if the government sat by as websites like Silk Road operated, or allowed some legal version of it to operate. Surely, the policies the United States has taken to on drugs could use some work, but I doubt a place like Silk Road is the right direction in which to look.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].