The seizure of the Silk Road, a heavily barricaded and highly trafficked website hawking drugs and hit men alike, and the arrest of its mastermind, the formerly elusive Dread Pirate Roberts, will perhaps slow down the online illegal drug trade, but no one involved in the ongoing war against drugs has any illusions that long-term change will come about simply because of this one successful operation.
The Silk Road was behind a secret section of the Internet known as the Deep Web. Hidden from conventional search engines behind hijacked router networks, byzantine encryption and devilishly resourceful tricks of electronic misdirection and diversion, the Deep Web is a dank, fetid cesspool of human depravity where aspiring terrorists, violent revolutionaries, child porn aficionados, criminals looking for handy tips and illegal drug dealers and consumers can freely congregate to make deals, socialize and share information about their favorite hobbies.
The formation of the Deep Web has made life easier for a variety of disreputable characters involved in all sorts of nefarious practices. But it has been an absolute boon to the international drug trade, and the profits that drug dealers have been able to accumulate have been astounding. The Deep Web allows sellers of illicit intoxicating substances to peddle their goods as easily as if they were operating on Amazon or eBay. After a sale has been completed, it is simply a matter of shipping discreetly packaged wares by mail or courier to cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD or prescription drug enthusiasts all across the planet (borders do function as a bit of a roadblock, however, since international postal and package inspection procedures are more rigorous than the intra-national versions).
There are countless secret Deep Web sites and forums that exist for the express purpose of bringing drug merchants and their eager customers closer together. The Silk Road emerged from the ether in February 2011 and brought with it a dubiously slick professionalism to a dirty business, which allowed it to rise to the top of the Deep Web dung heap in an impressively short period of time.
Shoppers traveling the virtual Silk Road could purchase high-powered firearms, ammunition, computer hacking instructional materials, money laundering services and a whole host of other wicked commodities. But it was drugs that brought home the bacon for Silk Road’s enigmatic owner and operator, Dread Pirate Roberts (believe it or not, that is not his real name). It has been estimated that more than $1 billion worth of drugs was sold over the Silk Road website in the two-plus years it was open, and it is believed that “Roberts” collected over $80 million in tax-free profits.
But Roberts will no longer have the chance to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, nor will the 950,000 registered users on the Silk Road site have the opportunity to make further transactions. On Oct. 2, the FBI finally broke through the supposedly shatterproof firewalls that protected the Silk Road website and shut it down. Shortly thereafter, they took Roberts—whose real name is Ross William Ulbricht—into custody in San Francisco.
Ulbricht, an outwardly unassuming 29-year-old former physics student, has been charged by the U.S. Justice Department with several counts of narcotics trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking, and prosecutors in the state of Maryland have charged him with attempted murder for allegedly trying to hire a professional assassin to kill a former co-worker who he believed had stolen money from the Silk Road treasure pot. Visitors to the Silk Road site are now being greeted with a banner announcing “this hidden site has been seized,” and the FBI, IRS and DEA emblems that frame this message leave no doubt as to which agencies are behind the seizing. Needless to say, the people who sold or purchased illegal items or services through the now-defunct Silk Road online marketplace will also be subject to prosecution if they are ever caught, and with the advanced code-breaking and firewall-penetrating technologies federal law enforcement agencies are in possession of these days, no one who did business on this website should consider himself safe.
The Road No Longer Traveled
The seizure of the Silk Road and the arrest of the formerly elusive Dread Pirate Roberts will perhaps slow down the online illegal drug trade a bit, but no one involved in the ongoing war against drugs has any illusions that long-term change will come about simply because of this one successful operation. Even if encryption-breaking software advances so far that it eventually becomes possible to shut down the Deep Web, or at least monitor it closely enough to drive the criminals into hiding, as long as there is a fortune to be made in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs, people will find a way to recruit customers and sell their dangerous illicit products through whatever means available.
“As soon as a site like Silk Road gets shut down, another one can crop up in its place,” Sarah Meiklejohn, a graduate student at UC San Diego, who has done research on black market sites like Silk Road, told the Huffington Post.
The evidence strongly suggests that treating drug use as a crime and prosecuting both dealers and users alike will never seriously impede the flow of illegal narcotics from community to community, state to state, country to country, or from bloodstream to brain in the bodies of addicts who will be resourceful enough to obtain the substances they require from any source that chooses to provide them. In the final analysis, the drug war is a battle than cannot be won because there is no end strategy that can force the other side to surrender and raise the white flag.