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[ Opinion ]

What the Darknet Can Teach Us About Sensible Drug Policy

By Douglas Capraro

A common analogy for the sheer breadth of the internet is that of a fishing net scraping the surface of the ocean: In other words, just like a fishing net cast into the deep blue sea, what we are able to gather on the “surface web” (aka the small amount of the internet we can access through conventional web browsers) comprises only a tiny percentage of what actually lies beneath.

So then, what lies beneath? Though the internet is virtually limitless, that huge and mysterious area of the world wide web that cannot be accessed on, say, Google, is referred to as the Deep Web.

The anonymity of the Deep Web compared to that of the surface web makes it an ideal place for people to do things that are normally not permitted on more exposed parts of the internet. In fact, many people on the Deep Web go as far as to create websites that cannot be accessed without special software or browsers. This area of the internet is called the Darknet. If you have read any headlines or heard any nefarious stories about activity on the Deep Web then, chances are, it had something to do with the Darknet.

However, the Darknet is not, as some would naturally assume, a place strictly for child pornography, sadomasochistic voyeurism, or “Hitmen for Hire” websites (though you can find plenty of that if you are naive or unlucky). In fact, some applications of the Darknet have been quite positive. For instance, Syrian democrats often hold secret chat rooms on the Darknet. In addition, journalists living under oppressive governments and even homosexuals communicating in socially unaccepting Middle Eastern countries have benefitted from the Darknet.

An aspect of the Darknet that all of us can benefit from though comes via one of the Darknet’s most publicized run-ins with the main stream media: illicit online drug markets.

As a disclaimer, this article is in no way shape or form an invitation for readers to partake in buying drugs, no matter what their legal status is in your country, from illegal websites on the Darknet. What it is though is an objective look at the benefits that this model of drug selling may offer our own admittedly broken system. Before I get into that, I must first begin by explaining what these drug markets are and how they work.

The Silk Road to Damascus

Many people’s knowledge of the Darknet probably began in 2013 after it was reported that the FBI had shut down a popular online drug market called Silk Road. Originally launched in February 2011, Silk Road was essentially the Amazon.com of illicit drug buying, where Darknet users could find and purchase anything from hash to heroin. Exchanges were done, like nearly all Darkweb purchases, using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In addition, any drug sellers were free to use the virtual marketplace as a medium for their business.

Although it seems unlikely that a website accepting virtual currency on a secret and unregulated part of the internet would be a safe option for your drug purchases, the reality of the situation may surprise you.

According to a report published by EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) last Thursday, online illicit drug markets such as Silk Road provide an exceedingly safer environment for people to buy and sell drugs than traditional face-to-face drug sales.

Why is this, you may ask? For one, buying your drugs online eliminates the common threat of violence and robbery that accompanies buying your wares out on the streets. In addition, illicit Darknet market places, also called “crypto markets”, provide a self-regulated community that is quick to penalize and put shady drug sellers out of business.

The Customer is Always Right

Here’s an example of how Darknet markets work: Let’s say you want to buy a car part on Ebay. You place your order, exchange money for the purchase, and wait for the delivery. When your car part arrives, the piece doesn’t fit the model advertised online and even worse, it’s broken. In a fit of anger, you go online and promptly give the seller a bad review and explain exactly what was wrong with the purchase. Considering that the seller in question continues to partake in similarly unsatisfactory exchanges, people with similar experiences will continue to write bad reviews until the seller is out of business and even banned from the website all together.

Crypto markets like Silk Road are no different. When you go to an illicit drug market on the Darknet, to which there are now approximately 30 in total, sellers are very aware of the power that feedback has on their prospective drug business. Self-regulation on these sites have become so strong, in fact, that the quality of customer service has actually gone through the roof. 

In Wired, one writer actually went as far as to try and buy drugs from a seller through a crypto market’s internal email system. The seller, named “Drugsheaven”, had a refund policy, detailed terms and conditions and several thousand pieces of feedback from the previous four months. When the writer contacted Drugsheaven to buy a small amount of hash, the seller replied almost immediately, saying: “Hi there! Thanks for the mail. My advice is that starting small is the smart thing to do, so no problem if you want to start with 1 gram. I would too if I were you. I hope we can do some business! Kind regards.”

Better Drugs Means Safer Drug Use

So what does this great customer service do for drug users besides preventing them from getting ripped off? The most important benefit of self-regulated drug markets is that better drugs equals a safer experience for drug users. When drug markets are unregulated, the drugs themselves are unregulated. Many people often don’t know the purity of the drugs that they are using and many users, especially inexperienced or irregular drug users, take drugs that have been combined with different and often more dangerous substances.

Take ecstasy for instance, as well as it’s allegedly “purer” cousin Molly. This highly popular drug has become a staple for some participants in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene, which has grown from its humble roots in illegal warehouses to become a $6.5 billion industry. With such a large number of people taking ecstasy and molly, many of them first-time or infrequent users, the risk is high for something to go wrong. This is all because buyers are at the mercy of illegal drug dealers.

Ecstasy and Molly is only supposed to contain MDMA, a kind of stimulant/psychedelic hybrid. Since it’s usually sold in the form of a tablet or white powder, dealers can often mix the drug with other similar looking substances. Therefore, what someone may think is MDMA is actually a mixture of methamphetamine, caffeine, over-the-counter cough suppressant dextromethorphan, diet drug ephedrine, and/or cocaine.

If buyers were purchasing ecstasy off of a crypto market like Silk Road, however, a seller wouldn’t even be able to sell more than a few doses of impure MDMA before they’ve been outed by the community and put out of business. Instead, what we have is an increasing number of drug deaths due in part to the buyer not knowing what’s in their little pink tablet.

Just Say No?

So let’s take a second to think about what this all means in regards to current US drug policy. Despite it’s legal status, we have seen how Darknet drug markets can lead to safer experiences for buyers. Under current drug policy, however, the US has done little to keep drug users safe despite continuing concerns about drug-related deaths.

The beginning of our current drug policies began when Richard Nixon declared an official “war on drugs” in 1971. As a result, many forceful measures were taken to not only criminalized the drug cartels, but also drug users. For instance, Nixon dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies while also implementing measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants (a serious breach of the constitution in its own right). He even went as far as to declare marijuana a Schedule 1 drug for a short period of time. This resulted in a skyrocketing number of low-level drug offenders being put in jail.

As a knee-jerk reaction to the misinterpreted and highly sensationalized crack epidemic, President Ronald Reagan began a widely publicized anti-drug campaign of his own, which used the slogan “Just Say No”. During this time, the number of nonviolent drug offenders in jail increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates also began the ineffective DARE campaign to educate children about drugs, a program that was excluded from the US Department of Education’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices until 2009 for not being “scientifically tested.” And although strict laws prohibiting the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies exacerbated the HIV/AIDS epidemic, even Bill Clinton continued Reagan’s federal ban on funding for syringe access and other similar programs.

So where does that leave us now?

While there has been a slim to noticeable decrease in the use of some substances, heroin use and its death toll is growing incrementally every year. Among other things, drug prohibition has also created more unsafe neighborhoods, made the availability of drug treatment even slimmer due to the cost for funding the war on drugs, and has created a bloody conflict in South America that costs tens of thousands of lives while doing nothing to actually reduce the supply of illicit drugs.

Reducing The Harm of Drug Use

If you are scratching your head wondering why we would continue to fund something as destructive as the war on drugs, then you are not alone. There are not only a growing number of groups and activists dedicated to offering alternatives to these outdated practices, but there are also policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum who have come forward with new alternatives to correct the mistakes of our past. Perhaps the most important aspect of this new drug policy reform effort is called harm reduction, an area in which Darknet markets like Silk Road may serve as a good example. 

According to one of its most powerful contemporary advocates, the Harm Reduction Coalition, harm reduction can be described as a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. While they do not attempt to minimize or ignore the real and tragic harm and danger associated with licit and illicit drug use, harm reduction advocates understand the inevitability of drug use and aim instead to reduce the harm associated with it. This comes in stark contrast to the judgement and criminalization of drug users that has become routine under policies set during the war on drugs.

This injection kit used in harm reduction programs and given to intravenous drug addicts.

In this country, harm reduction typically includes services such as syringe access, Hepatitis C education, and overdose prevention such as the distribution of naloxone, an opioid antagonist. In other parts of the world though, harm reduction measures have been taken to even greater heights. One country in particular that has dramatically raised the bar is Portugal, who decriminalized the low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs in 2001. The outcome of their new policy has been extremely promising.

Among other things, Portugal has seen no major increase in drug use, reduced problematic and adolescent drug use, reduced social costs of drug misuse, and a dramatic decrease in drug-induced deaths, not to mention fewer people being arrested and incarcerated for drugs. Yet we don’t need to travel as far as Portugal to see the obvious benefits of a harm reduction-oriented approach to drug policy. Though it operates on a smaller level, there are already people in the US who buy drugs off of Darknet market places, and statistics show that they are better off for doing just that.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE DARKNET

This is not say that the US should necessarily implement an online drug market place of its own. However, when an illicit alternative such as Silk Road trumps the safety and effectiveness of drug use under the age-old policies of our current system, then we might want to rethink our strategies.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, some people have presented a model of drug distribution not unlike that of the Darknet. Former chief drug advisor to the UK government David Nutt, for instance, has even gone as far as to propose regulating nearly all illicit drugs as an effort to keep drug users more safe. However, the model that crypto markets have set show us that lowering the harm of drug use begins by simply being up front. Sellers on the Darknet are scared to lose customers by selling them harmful or impure drug wares. Therefore, they make sure that customers get what they pay for, which means no mixed Molly, no oregano, and no “hot shots“.

Many US laws can often get in the way of harm reduction services though due to certain Catch 22-type restrictions. For instance, a group called The Bunk Police have long risked imprisonment to help festival-goers determine what is in their drugs by providing free and confidential toxicity tests. Under the RAVE Act, however, festivals are not allowed to acknowledge the use of drugs on their premises. Therefore, although people will be taking drugs anyways and groups like The Bunk Police may prevent loads of inevitable drug-related deaths, festivals are not permitted to allow The Bunk Police do their job.

As time goes on though and the death toll related to drug use continues to rise, countries like the US will have to come to a decision: Is it worth it to continue an ineffective set of drug policies that perpetuate the well-being of its citizens? Or is it better look for new, evidence-based options? Whenever that time may come, you can be rest assured that the model set by crypto markets on the Darknet will serve as a prime example of how sensible drug policies can be found in the most unlikely of places.