Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

The Silk Road: should drugs be legalised?

Please excuse the brief nature of this blog, the subject definitely merits a longer discussion at some point, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the recent closure of The Silk Road drugs bazaar and the arrest of the person whom the FBI believe to be its founder, Ross Ulbricht, and more generally on the legalisation of the drug trade.

The Silk Road is an illicit online marketplace where users are paid in Bitcoin virtual money. The site has been described as the drug world’s equivalent of eBay. This is a good summary of the events that have taken place so far.

It’s probably just the circles I move in or maybe a sign of the times we’re living in but I’ve heard very little condemnation of the site or Ulbricht. The prevailing consensus seems to be that the forced closure of The Silk Road will do very little to diminish demand for narcotic substances and efforts to do so are ultimately futile, as they pretty much fly in the face of thousands of years of humans seeking highs. Most people I speak to are in favour of the legalisation and regulation of the drug industry. In fact, according to this writer in The Atlantic, The Silk Road’s demise at the hands of law enforcement may have made the world a more dangerous place.

The reasons he gives are quite simple:

– The Silk Road used a feedback ratings system, just like any other online retailer, to identify scammers and sellers whose products and service were of poor quality, as a result the majority of the drugs sold on the site were of a higher quality and therefore safer to consume than those bought and sold on the street. It also had a very active discussion forum where users were strongly encouraged to research other users they were considering doing business with. Serving as a second method of verifying reliability, this guards against what could be a gamed ratings system.

– As the transaction takes place online, it protects buyers and sellers from the risk of potential violence (robbery, for example) usually associated with these types of street purchases. You may lose a few Bitcoins if you get scammed, but stand zero chance of being physical assaulted.

A broader point being that The Silk Road did not rise to prominence through the use of intimidation and force. It offered a sophisticated, secure service that people wanted to use. There were other competitors in the market, but The Silk Road was, by far, the more superior offering. One example of this is the “hedged escrow” option it offered to sellers as a way to manage the volatility of Bitcoin, the site’s currency. The type of highly developed financial know-how and innovation that you’d expect from a business with extensive global reach, reportedly dealing in over $1.2-billion in sales transactions, $80-million of which, the FBI estimate, went to Ross Ulbricht himself.

Which brings up an obvious point, although the more liberty-minded of you might not like it – the drug trade is an enormous industry that is entirely untaxed. If it were legalised and taxed, the revenues raised from it could be used to offset the strain that drug users place on national health services. It’s just one idea often raised in justification of legalisation and there are many others too, too numerous to examine right now.

It’s also easy to be glib about this; as I have said before, there is no such thing as a perfect system  and there will be trade-offs; many of which will be unforeseeable. It would be unwise to dismiss the concerns of those who worry what legalisation could mean for society. Would it result in higher rates of addiction? Chaotic families where parents neglect children in favour of taking drugs that are now more readily available? Perhaps more drug-related illnesses and deaths? Maybe even lower rates of economic productivity amongst those who consume large amounts of intoxicants?

These are some of the objections I’ve heard and they are sensible ones. I am aware that all of this could be equally applied to the use of alcohol. Is there a significant difference? I’m not so sure there is. I do know, however, that bar a few exceptions legalisation is probably not a big priority for any government anywhere in the world right now.

But nevertheless, in the spirit of proper debate, I really want to hear from people on both sides of the issue. So please do let me know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #silkroad.

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