In news that will come as a shock to no one at all, a new study from the Universities of Manchester and Montreal has found that online sales of illegal drugs have tripled since the closure of the dark web’s most famous marketplace – Silk Road.
At the time of its closure in 2013, Silk Road was the largest online marketplace for illegal drugs, processing an estimated $15 million in sales annually. A huge effort was made by law enforcement agencies to shut it down, but like all efforts at prohibition, it was in vain. Despite the closure of the website and the imprisonment of its alleged founder, overall revenue from dark web drug sales have doubled in the past three years.
“The closure of Silk Road has not curbed the growth of these cryptomarkets, as more markets continue to be created and more illicit drugs are being bought online,” Stijn Hoorens, a research leader at RAND Europe and one of the report’s authors, told Newsweek.
Unsurprisingly, cannabis is the most popular drug purchased from the new crop of ‘cryptomarkets,’ as the study calls these marketplaces. It’s overwhelming popularity – it is the most-used illicit drug worldwide according to UN figures – has survived decades of real-world attempts at eradication and fear-mongering, and online the story is no different.
Just as in the real world, where the smashing of one drug ring and the incarceration of a so-called ‘kingpin’ leads inexorably to the rise of a new leader, often more sophisticated and/or brutal than the last, so too has the closure of the market leader in online drug-selling websites done absolutely nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs.
Unlike in the real world, however, these cryptomarkets have little need for the violence and bloodshed so often attributed to cartels and inner-city gangs. Had the closure of Silk Road been a success in terms of putting a stop to online sales, it could have had a disastrous effect on the streets, given that a marketplace free of tribal rivalries had removed much of the danger involved in black market drug sales. Without that violence and danger, focus was instead put firmly on quality and price, and as a result a significant amount of trade had moved online.
Thankfully the crackdown has not proven to be successful, but there is still no end in sight. Despite the obvious advantages of online cryptomarkets when compared to traditional black markets, law enforcement agencies and governments are determined to shut them down. Even whilst regulated, legal markets for cannabis have taken root and flourished across the world, the head-in-the-sand mentality from those in charge continues to hold sway.
What these new figures tell us is that no amount of prohibition can beat the market. It seems almost too obvious to say, but where there is demand, there will always be those willing to supply. And there will always be demand, particularly for cannabis, and particularly now, as legal markets emerge and medical use continues to increase in popularity.
Marketplaces like the Silk Road and others have met that demand in what is so far (other than the legal markets in Colorado, etc) the least harmful way. To keep fighting them is sheer folly; if governments really want to beat the black market and control drugs whilst reducing harm, they need to look at these markets, harness the things they’ve done well, and create their own regulated markets. Online markets could well be the future of the cannabis industry.