"There's no way Silk Road could be reasonably expected to reduce violence," Federal District Court Judge Katherine Forrest said at the recent sentencing hearing for Ross Ulbricht, the convicted founder of the Silk Road online drug market.
Going into sentencing, Ulbricht's legal team had argued that Silk Road, and other drug markets like it, had actually reduced the violence and harms associated with the drug trade. Much of the violence associated with the drug trade happens due to street-level dealers fighting over turf. But if people are buying online, there's no turf to fight over -- "with Silk Road functioning to considerable degree at the wholesale/broker market level, its virtual location should reduce violence, intimidation and territorialism," researchers at the University of Manchester and the University of Montreal concluded in a paper last year.
Most online drug markets also let buyers rate products and sellers, similar to eBay and Amazon. This could arguably make it less likely that sellers will cut their drugs with dangerous contaminants -- doing so would run the risk of negative feedback from buyers, which in turn would make others less likely to buy for you. There's no comparable ratings system for drugs bought on the street.
Now new data suggests this is actually how it works. The Global Drug Survey, led by British university researcher, recently asked a group of drug buyers about their experiences. Researchers asked more than 100,000 people around the world about their experiences using and buying all manner of mind-altering substances, from tobacco to alcohol to heroin. It's important to note that this wasn't a random sample -- the 100,000 respondents voluntarily opted in and filled out an online questionnaire.
But the survey's sheer size and international scope can still tell us a lot about how people purchase and buy drugs around the world. Among other things, the survey asked users about the risks they encountered buying drugs online versus buying in the street. Here's what they said:
Respondents were nearly six times as likely to say they experienced physical violence on the street compared to buying online. They were five times as likely to experience threats to their personal safety on the street, and almost four times as likely to buy a product that didn't contain what the dealer said it did.
Street buyers were also more likely to get caught by authorities, to get a low purity product, to pay too much and to experience some form of blackmail as a result of their transactions.
Online buyers had worries too, but many of these sound like the complaints you read about on eBay. They were more likely to experience a long wait for a product, or to not receive it at all after they paid. They were also more likely to get their drugs seized by customs and to lose money due to scams. They were nearly 8 times more likely than street buyers to say they lost money due to currency volatility -- a consequence of online drug purchases happening exclusively in bitcoin.
Overall, though, the numbers show that violence and threats to safety are much more likely to be experienced by people buying on the street. As Dr. Adam Winstock, the British academic who did the Global Drug Survey, said in an interview last year, "Is it a good thing the Internet removes the dominance of drug cartels? Yes. Is it a good thing that you’re reducing the need for people to come face-to-face with drug dealers and therefore reducing violence? Yeah, that’s a good thing."
But in sentencing Silk Road's Ross Ulbricht, Judge Katherine Forrest wasn't buying arguments like these: she gave Ulbricht life in prison without possibility of parole. His defense team has already appealed.