Silk Road Is Down, Yet Online Drug Trade Thrives

Silk Road was shut down in October 2013 by the FBI and other federal agencies

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), together with other US federal agencies, closed down the online illicit narcotics market Silk Road in October 2013, many thought it would deal a crushing blow to the Internet drug trade.

Ross Ulbricht, better known by his online pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts," and the alleged head administrator of the website, was arrested that same month together with other Silk Road staff members. He is currently awaiting trial and facing charges of conspiracy to traffic narcotics, money laundering, and hiring someone to commit murder.

Having Ulbricht in jail and facing decades in prison, federal security agencies declared a victory over the Internet drug trade, one which had grown enormously in the preceding two years -- the turnover for Silk Road sellers alone was estimated (somewhat conservatively) to be over $10 million dollars a year.

To the FBI’s and Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) dismay, however, a number of similar online markets opened right after the arrest of Ulbricht, while those that had existed before though with less popularity, gained thousands of new sellers and buyers. Even Silk Road itself was resurrected under new management and given the name "Silk Road 2.0."

However, while these new spaces popped up, they didn't immediately offer their users the same security as the old Silk Road. For one, Silk Road 2.0 was soon hacked by unknowns resulting the in loss of over $2 million dollars of its customers' money. In another example, the owner of the "Sheep Market" online space absconded with more than $5 million.

As of today, there are a number of so-called "Deep Web" sites that have filled the Silk Road void through offering illegal substances, among them the likes of Bazaar, Pirate Market, and Tortuga. Often, one can not only buy a wide range of drugs there, but also stolen items, databases with sensitive personal details, fake IDs and weapons.

Perhaps most noteworthy is that not only have the aforementioned sites moved in, the number of drug offers on the Deep Web is now higher than before Silk Road was closed down. According to a recent report by Digital Citizens Alliance, there are around 13,648 drug listings on Silk Road 2.0 alone, not even including other websites. This compares to the 13,000 listings before Ulbricht's arrest and deems the declared victory by law enforcement questionable to say the least.

Phenomenon such as these -- where officials try to cut off the supply without lowering the demand for drugs, thus ensuring the supply moves elsewhere -- are well known to the critics of "War on Drugs," and can be observed all around the world. Bust one drug producer, trafficker or dealer and their competitor's business will soon gain. One need only look to Latin America and the shift in trafficking routes and coca cultivation for evidence of how this "Balloon Effect" takes place. 

With the anonymity that new technologies provide -- like the TOR network which allows people to use certain websites without having to disclose their identity -- and which is making drug deals less risky for both customers and sellers, we can reasonably expect the online drug trade to grow further despite the efforts of authorities.

*Jan Stola is the coordinator for Youth Organisations for Drug Action (YODA), and the founder of the Students' Drug Policy Initiative.