The typical retail recreational drug dealer isn’t the most ambitious of characters. The job offers a decent income, short working hours and the chance to spend all day getting high on your own supply and watching porn; no doubt the dream job for many teenage males, but a little bit sad if you reach your 30s and you’re still doing it. The skills required are minimal – find a supplier and a set of digital scales, spread the word through friends (carefully, mind) and the customers start to roll in. Thanks to the prohibition of drugs, there’s no need to provide good customer service, or a quality product. Competition is minimal, and the free market limited – customers have little choice but to come back, however bad a service or product they receive.
The stupidity of prohibition really hits home when you realise what kind of morons end up dealing drugs for a living. According to Drugscope, British “coke” is only about 26% pure when it reaches the customer, and can contain any blend of a dozen or more substances. In order to keep his prices keen and his margins high, the dealer will cut in other, cheaper (and sometimes more dangerous) drugs and fillers. The buyer has little idea what he’s actually buying – and the same applies to other drugs from heroin to hashish and pills of various types.
The official line is, of course, that prohibition exists to protect the public, but this is nonsensical. Most “drug deaths” aren’t caused by the substances that customers think they’re buying, but by the unknown substances that are sneaked in by suppliers, or uncertainty over dosages. In just one of many examples, Lancashire police warned users a few years ago that cocaine was possibly being cut with a carcinogenic substance. Cocaine itself isn’t a particularly dangerous drug (far less so than alcohol, for example), but moronic attempts at prohibition have made it into one. If this happened in any legal business, the authorities could step in; but our moronic leaders have decided that the recreational drugs trade will be run by criminals, with no regulation whatsoever.
Many recreational drug users are well-informed about the substances they choose to use, and thanks to the Internet, reliable health information (which should be provided by governments) is shared among users. Drugs deaths are extremely rare – the real killer drug, alcohol, kills ten times more people than all illegal substances combined. Alcohol is a dangerous substance used by the majority because they have no other legal drug options, and little understanding that safer substances exist. A large minority of people choose other drugs, but find trouble with sourcing clean and reliable supplies because they are illegal.
A genuine free market in recreational drugs would give users the control to buy what they want, from trusted suppliers, instead of basing their drug choices on what is legal, or easily available.
That moment has arrived. No: political leaders haven’t overcome their stupidity, corruption and cowardice, and decided to legalise, regulate and tax a drugs market; instead, technology has stepped in to fill the void. The Silk Road marketplace is a web site set up by unknown geeks and run from unknown places. It makes use of state-of-the-art technologies in encryption, anonymisation and digital currency. It allows sellers to list products, and buyers to browse, check out vendors, and purchase safely. By use of an eBay-style rating system, vendors can score suppliers by reliability and product quality. Just as with eBay, the rating of vendors allows the “wisdom of crowds” to help reliable, honest vendors to be identified.
You want ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, cocaine or diazepam? Heroin, cannabis, hashish or morphine perhaps? They’re all there, and many more. The site can’t be accessed via a regular web browser; it uses the Tor browser to route connections through multiple servers and prevent them being traced, and the Bitcoin electronic currency to allow anonymous payments. The marketplace has been around for over a year – Gawker reported on it on 1st June 2011, and it still appears to be thriving.
I’m far from being an anti-government, fundamentalist libertarian. It’s true, as the Silk Road demonstrates, that markets are often good at creating freedom in the midst of repression, and that competition tends to lead to better, cheaper products and better service. But I also believe that good regulation makes for better markets; governments have a duty (which they currently shirk) to control the quality of recreational drugs and inform customers of what they’re buying. Government negligence in refusing to regulate the drugs market destroys millions of lives, and entire countries; there should be global outrage against the “war on drugs”, but the corporate media does a great job in persuading the majority that drugs, rather than the “war on drugs”, are the real menace.
The Silk Road presents an opportunity for governments to accept that the “war on drugs” never had a hope in hell of succeeding. They could destroy the system overnight by offering their citizens legal, regulated, safe supplies of drugs. As I’ve blogged previously, they could reduce the damage caused by alcohol by offering legal alternatives. But politicians are too badly informed, or cowardly, and vested interests too powerful, so rather than do the sane thing, authorities are no doubt trying to track down and arrest the operators of the Silk Road. In the interest of liberty, and of saving yet more countries from being torn apart by the “war on drugs”, let’s hope that they fail.
Since prehistoric times, almost all human societies have used drugs. They’ll never go away; our leaders can only ensure that they are as safe – and as good – as possible. The Silk Road is a technological, market-based attack on the “war on drugs” – it may not be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction.