Thursday, October 3, 2013
As you likely read, yesterday the FBI shut down Silk Road (reported here via LA Times), an online marketplace for illegal drugs, after a lengthy investigation turned up evidence of hit men and obviously lots of illegal drug transactions. The reaction from users of the site (e.g. here) raises somewhat interesting issues relating to the impact of marijuana prohibition (and drug prohibition more broadly) on public health and safety.
Silk Road provided two major public health/safety benefits over the traditional street-level black markets for drugs. First, by eliminating the need for street deals, Silk Road provided a safer way for buyers and sellers to exchange drugs. Buyers no longer needed to venture into sketchy neighborhoods. They simply placed an order online and received the drugs in the mail. Sellers no longer had to hang out in those sketchy neighborhoods. The blight of corner dealers was at least marginally reduced as transactions moved online. This was better not just for those engaged in the drug trade, but also for the residents of drug-infested neighborhoods.
Second, Silk Road provided a marketplace where sellers could compete on the purity and safety of their products. Listings often included pictures of purity test results, with some drugs approaching Walt Walter quality levels. To the extent that we care about harm reduction, Silk Road marginally reduced the risk of harm resulting from drugs cut with dangerous substances. It also reduced the risk of accidental overdoses (on drugs other than marijuana) resulting from using drugs of uncertain potency.
Silk Road users are now lamenting the fact that they will be forced to return to buying impure drugs from street dealers in dangerous neighborhoods. While the site clearly facilitated violations of U.S. law, its success in providing a safer marketplace for drugs serves to reinforce the harms caused by drug prohibition, both to users and to those who in live in neighborhoods where drug dealers operate. Silk Road may also stand as an example of how drug markets could operate if drugs were legalized. Policymakers should consider the success of Silk Road (and the inevitable clones that will pop up to fill its place in the coming weeks) when debating drug reform.
As an aside, people who oppose reforming drug laws will likely point to the rather disgusting things that went down on Silk Road as evidence that drug prohibition is necessary. The head of the site ordered a hit on a would-be narc who threatened to blackmail him. Trade in child pornography, guns, and other contraband proliferated on the site. But these things resulted from the anonymity necessitated by drug prohibition, not from the nature of the site as a forum for buying and selling drugs. Absent prohibition, buyers and sellers on Silk Road-like sites would use bank accounts or credit cards to make purchases (similar to Ebay, to which Silk Road was often compared). This would kill the anonymity that led to unfortunate side effects.