Online illegal drugs markets show us the potential benefits of legalisation

Monday saw the worldwide release of the 2014 Global Drug Survey, with particular focus on the recent growth of online markets for illegal drugs. Despite its temporary shutdown in October 2013 - following the arrest of its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht - Silk Road (2.0) remains the most popular anonymous drugs marketplace on the internet. The online element of the survey therefore focused mainly on this site. Growing up in Essex has made me appreciate why purchasing illegal drugs online is a far more attractive option. I have experienced the catastrophic effects of drug prohibition first-hand, and it is part of the reason that the issue means a great deal to me. Friends and acquaintances have had terrible experiences due to contamination from unscrupulous dealers with little incentive to raise their drugs’ quality, and every reason to lace their products with harmful additives. The violence associated with buying and selling drugs in person has affected the lives of people close to me.

As a current university student, I now live in an environment populated by many people who use Silk Road regularly, and for a variety of purchases. From prescription-only ‘study drugs’ like modafinil to recreational marijuana and cocaine, fellow students’ experiences with drugs ordered from Silk Road have reinforced my beliefs in the benefits of legalisation. They have no need to worry about aggressive dealers and are more likely to receive safer drugs: meaning chances of an overdose and other health risks are substantially reduced.

Their motivations for using Silk Road rather than street dealers correlate with the Global Drug Survey’s findings. Over 60% of participants cited the quality of Silk Road’s drugs as being a reason for ordering, whilst a significant proportion also used the site as a way to avoid the potential violence of purchasing from the street. Given that payments are made in the highly volatile Bitcoin, it was also surprising to learn that lower prices were a motivation for more than a third of respondents.

Thus far, governments have unsurprisingly been reluctant to apply the insights that Silk Road provided us with. The political classes remain largely sceptical of attempts at reforming drug laws. However, the UK debate on legalisation is slowly progressing; earlier this month, Nigel Farage spoke in favour of drug law reform, echoing calls for a royal commission from Nick Clegg in February. Ipsos MORI polling last year found that more than half the country supports legalising (or decriminalising) cannabis.

Opponents of reform make the argument that legalisation helps to further normalise drug culture, resulting in increased usage. This is a reasonable claim, and one that seems to be supported by the available literature on marijuana legalisation. However, a marginal increase in the use of safer, regulated drugs seems a worthy price to pay. Legalisation will improve the lives of the poorest and minorities, who are disproportionately harmed by prohibition. It will reduce the violence associated with illegal drugs, ease the pressure on prison spaces and benefit public finances. Instead of criminalising drug users and addicts, it can provide the individuals who currently choose to use illegal drugs with products that are even safer than Silk Road.

Ross Ulbricht, or ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, set out to explicitly show what it would be like to end the failed War on Drugs. He posted the following in his LinkedIn profile:

“I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

Silk Road has given us a real-world demonstration of why removing state violence from the drug market is one of the best steps the UK government could take towards improving the lives of its citizens. Legalisation should be put back on the agenda.