On the afternoon of Oct. 2, Ross William Ulbricht was arrested by law enforcement officials in a public library in San Francisco, but the arrest was for no petty crime. Ulbricht, known online as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was charged with laundering money, leading a narcotics trafficking conspiracy and hacking computers for operating the Silk Road, an online black market drug trafficking site that generated over $1.2 billion in revenue since its inception in Feb. 2011. The name “Silk Road” comes from the series of trade routes that spanned Asia and saw the transport of various goods, including opium.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has since seized the site, which had nearly 1.3 million transactions in a 30-month span and a strong cohort of dedicated followers, some of which included minors. Drugs sold on the site were listed under categories such as: “Cannabis,” “Dissociatives,” “Prescription,” “Opioids” and “Psychedelics.”
Jane, an anonymous Palo Alto High School student, had not heard about the site until a couple of her friends from out of town had told her about it.
“I don’t think a lot people know about it at Paly because whenever I mention it, I always have to explain it to people,” Jane said.
Thibault Serlet, a former Paly student who has been following the developments of the Silk Road since its launch two and a half years ago, estimates that the number of Paly students who used the Silk Road to purchase narcotics before it was seized “to be no more than 10 or 15.”
According to Jane, Silk Road offered both synthetic and natural drugs, including “anything from 4FA and 25I and 25B to shrooms and even just weed.” 4FA (an amphetamine), 25I (a psychedelic) and 25B (a hallucinogen) are all unscheduled drugs in the United States and are only a few examples of drugs known only by their chemical components. Many of these drugs are unclassified and have flown under the government’s radar until now.
Although some have compared Silk Road to the drug-lover’s version of Amazon.com, Jane explains that accessing the site is not as simple.
“It was really high-security from what my friends have told me,” Jane said. “I didn’t have access to it myself, but my friends did, and from what they’ve told me about what they have to do to get on to it, it’s incredibly high-security, incredibly anonymous. I don’t know if I’m more surprised by how long it took for the FBI to [shut it down] or by the fact that they actually found it.”
Users and sellers had to download TOR, an internet server that allowed users to anonymously surf the web. Once they obtained the website address of Silk Road, users had to gain access to the digital currency of Bitcoins, which was the only currency that the website accepted.
Bitcoins were invented by a Japanese programmer in 2008 and are described as a cryptocurrency, for it is decentralized and the entire payment system is online, which allows for anonymous monetary transactions. One Bitcoin is equivalent to 121 U.S. dollars. Once a purchase is made, packages can be send to a home address, but many users opt for postal boxes at a local postal office.
Serlet, who describes himself as a “Bitcoin enthusiast,” views the site as a positive force in the push for unregulated free enterprise and as a way for drug users to alleviate the effects of the drug war.
“I’m a big fan of the Silk Road,” Serlet said. “The Silk Road is a website [that’s goal is to create] a perfectly competitive free market with no taxes and no government regulations whatsoever. The idea was to have a completely unregulated free market, and it was shut down for that very reason. The Silk Road is a positive force.”
Jane herself has used MDMA, 4FA and other synthetic substances that were purchased from Silk Road, and describes the drugs as “cleaner than what you can get off the street.” Although street deals are more common for high school drug users, Jane sees the upside in a possible future of online drug purchasing.
“I think it’s easier for high schoolers to do street deals because [if you buy drugs online] you have to get a PO Box and it all gets traced back to the parents,” Jane said. “But if you are able to [buy online], then honestly it’s a better choice because a) you can find things that are really hard to find on the street and b) street drugs aren’t always the cleanest or the safest.”
Serlet believes that since drugs on the Silk Road were often cheaper than street drugs, drug addicts who had “fiscal constraints… [could] improve the quality of their own lives and spend less time on the streets.”
The FBI seized $3.6 million in Bitcoins after Ulbricht’s arrest, or roughly $438.5 million USD, which made the seizure the second-largest seizure of Bitcoins in history. Items sold on the site were not just limited to drugs, but also included counterfeit cash and documents, firearms and ammunition, and even the services of hackers and hitmen. Over 100,000 products were being sold by vendors.
“You can argue that people have a right to use drugs because you can make a whole bunch of ethical arguments,” Serlet said.
“[If] someone has the right to cut off their finger, someone has the right to shoot up heroin.”
The Silk Road, which Serlet says was created by a group of “anarcho-capitalist-libertarians,” and other free trade websites also have the ability to allow beneficial goods, such as medicine, to be bought free of any healthcare restrictions.
“The Silk Road could be used to smuggle non-FDA-approved life-saving medications to those who need it,” Serlet said. “[Anything] from European Union-approved drugs to cannabis to experimental cancer medicines.”
Serlet says there are still active sites that are comparable to the services of the Silk Road and tend to be even more secure. He believes that such sites are critical to fair trade in the marketplace and are of great service to not just drug users, but all those who support free enterprise.
“The government hates the free market, the government hates the drug trade,” Serlet said. “There are many good cases that can be made to support the legalization of [the drug trade]. If you’re somebody who supports the legalization of drugs… then you have to support the Silk Road.”