Study Reveals Harsh Sentences Do Nothing To Stop Illegal Online Drug Marketplaces

Following the shutdown of the Silk Road, an online illicit drug marketplace, the judge responsible for sentencing the site’s founder to life in prison, Katherine Forrest, issued a threat to those who pursue illegal activity in the so-called Dark Web.

“They need to understand, without equivocation, that there will be severe consequences.”

Yet whether or not those consequences will have any impact on the prevalence of such activity looks to be leaning towards the negative.

The Dark Web is made up of websites that are publicly visible, but are run using anonymity tools, such as Tor, that conceal the IP address of the server hosting the content. Much of the activity on the Dark Web is devoted to illegal drug sales, though journalists have been known to use Tor in order to correspond with whistleblowers.

According to a new study by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the imprisonment of Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht has had virtually no impact on the amount of illicit commerce on the web.

CMU researchers Kyle Soska and Nicholas Christin investigated Dark Web drug marketplaces similar to Silk Road in order to develop an estimate on the type and volume of drugs being purchased.

Between 2013 and 2015, they concluded that sales fluctuated between $300,000 and $500,000 per day, with most sales involving cannabis, psychedelics, and opiates. The portion of international drug trade that occurs on the Dark Web only accounts for 0.1% of the global total, which the UN pegs at $321 billion.

Soska and Christin point out that the pursuit and closure of such online marketplaces is a misallocation of government resources that is having no real impact, citing the FBI and Europol’s Operation Onymous, which closed hundreds of Dark Web markets.

Despite the closures online drug sales still remained above $100 million per year as users flocked to other marketplaces or created their own.

Christin suggests focusing on vendors who sell dangerous products, such as ricin or cyanide, rather than users in pursuit of recreational drugs.

Christin cites the fact that online transactions remove the possibility of violence that is present in face-to-face transactions while the escrow and review processes of online marketplaces reduce the odds of consumers acquiring drugs cut with possibly dangerous substances.

In Ross Ulbricht’s case, Silk Road even had a staff doctor who offered rigorous medical advice on a wide range of drug related issues to marketplace users. This effectively made Silk Road the world’s safest drug marketplace, a fact which was completely ignored when Judge Forrest sentence him to life in prison.

With the success of the online drug war shaping up to be no more effective than its offline counterpart, more evidence like that from the CMU study may one day shift enforcement policy in a more productive direction.

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