Should a Cyber Drug Trafficker Spend Life Behind Bars?
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Should a Cyber Drug Trafficker Spend Life Behind Bars?


Oh, the “darknet,” that cyber underworld. There are mastermind criminals ripping you off from behind their laptops in Eastern Europe and posting copyrighted films for you to download on torrent sites. There was also a site called Silk Road where you could buy you cocaine, heroin and meth, if that was your jam.

The brains behind Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, who went by the name Dread Pirate Roberts on the site (yeah, that’s a Princess Bride reference), has just bit the dust in a federal courtroom in New York. He was convicted of seven felony charges that will put him away for at least 20 years and potentially his entire life for selling a bunch of drugs anonymously to a bunch of anonymous buyers who then sold their goods to anonymous users. Ulbricht wove an intricate web of worldwide off-the-grid drug trafficking, and he reaped a nice $18 million for his time.

Prosecutors called Silk Road “most sophisticated criminal marketplace on the Internet.”

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Maybe I’ve watched too many heist movies, but you can’t help but admire the guy. Using untraceable Bitcoins as currency and a routing system that bounced correspondence off multiple servers throughout the globe, Ulbricht managed to keep the feds off his scent for a good five years as he collected bigger and bigger chunks of change.

His business was simple face-value transactions—when the buyer wanted the drugs, they threw some Bitcoins at the Dread Pirate, who then threw the drugs back at the buyer who then fished for more buyers online. We’re talking about an up-front fair-and-square exchange and no one knows anyone’s identity, so you’d think no one would get hurt. (Except, of course, addicts—more on that below.)

While the federal prosecutors claim that Ulbricht spent thousands hiring hit men to take out Silk Road administrators who threatened his enterprise, they have no murder victims. They did go undercover as a hired gun, staging a murder and sending Ulbricht the photos that it was completed. But with no dead bodies, you can’t exactly indict the guy.

“Athough it appears that none of the murders were actually carried out,” prosecutors write, “Ulbricht clearly intended them to happen, and the details of the attempted murders demonstrate that Ulbricht will not hesitate to use violence in order to silence witnesses, safeguard his criminal proceeds, or otherwise protect his self-interest.”

Ulbricht faces a life sentence in federal prison (sentencing will take place on May 15th).

Druggies Will Want Drugs

So a fairly handsome computer nerd was networking drug dealers and buyers through cyberspace as opposed to the streets, and potentially knocking off those who get in his way. Prosecutors emphasize the fact that the online marketplace offered access to drugs for many people who otherwise would not have access…which makes no sense to any addict. If someone wants drugs, they’ll find a way to get drugs, but maybe those prosecutors have been stuck up in the US Attorney’s office for so long they’ve never known an actual drug user.

Still, the trouble it takes to call up a connect, head to the shady part of your particular city so you can score at 2 am is a humiliating act, at least for most. When you can shop for illicit drugs like you shop for self-help books on Amazon or do-it-yourself coffee tables on, it’s easy to feel less conflicted. At the very least, scoring drugs while in your pajamas and wearing bunny slippers might delude you into thinking they’re not all that dangerous to begin with, which isn’t such a great thing for addicts with a deadly penchant to overdo it.

What’s the Problem, Officer?

While an online marketplace for potentially lethal drugs is no bueno for hardcore addicts, if Ulbricht wasn’t threatening death to anyone who crossed him, then I don’t think he should be be hanged. Federal prosecutors revel in their victories, and law enforcement hungers to make examples out of criminals. For many years the darknet maestros have stumped the feds, and now they’re beside themselves with glee that they’ve outsmarted the slyest of them all. And they will make an example out of him.

“The supposed anonymity of the dark web is not a protective shield from arrest and prosecution,” said Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. He added that Ulbricht’s arrest and conviction “should send a clear message to anyone else attempting to operate an online criminal enterprise.”

Ulbricht had a good run and maybe even helped curb some street crime through his anonymous operation. Maybe, if drugs were legalized, his operation could be used loosely as a template for an online marketplace. Of course that might prove deadly for the average heroin junkie.

But that’s, of course, a whole different argument.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Government, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. State Department ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.