Silk Road has risen from the dead. After the FBI seized the deep web's favorite illegal drug market and arrested its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht last month (for, among other things, ordering a hit through his own website), the online-marketplace-cum-libertarian-movement has found a new home and opened for business today at 11:20 AM EST.
In the wake of the original Silk Road's closure, everything became a little turbulent for its users. First, they had to get used to not getting high-quality, peer-reviewed drugs delivered direct to their sofas. (Though presumably they didn't stop getting high, instead forced back to the "mystery mix" street dealers and surly ex-Balkan war criminals who have spent years filling cities with drugs at night.) Some users were pissed off that they'd lost all the Bitcoin wealth they'd amassed, or that paid-for orders would go undelivered, while small-time dealers freaked out about how they suddenly lacked the funds to pay off debts owed to drug sellers higher up the food chain.
Viable Silk Road replacements have been few and far between. Project Black Flag, one marketplace purportedly created to fill the void, appears to have been a scam. The site's owner recently closed up shop and made off with a load of Bitcoins without sending any product out to customers. Another alternative, Sheep, has been plagued with security worries, with many vendors deciding to hold off until a more stable site is launched.
Of those who did decide to continue selling their product—be it drugs, guns, assassinations or tutorials on how to hack ATMs—the well established site Black Market Reloaded seemed the obvious choice, and its popularity skyrocketed after Silk Road was closed down. However, it has since suffered a bunch of short-term shutdowns, with some seeing this as a signal that the site is on its way out. Mind you, at the time of writing the website boasts over 6,000 listings for drugs and around 250 for weapons, which doesn't seem like the kind of thing you'd see on a marketplace on the verge of shutting down.
Now, Silk Road is back and promises to provide the same level of reliable service it did before it was busted. The site's new leader—who's taken on the title of "Dread Pirate Roberts" (DPR), the name Ulbricht supposedly used while allegedly helming the site—was kind enough to grant me early access to Silk Road 2.0 ahead of its launch today. As far as I can see, the layout is very similar to the previous version's, allowing users to navigate through lists and subsections of a bunch of stuff you'd be unlikely to find anyone selling on the high street. Currently, the majority of listings are drugs and drug paraphernalia, but we can assume that other illegal products and services will be listed once the site is live and vendors know it can be trusted.
DPR has been stoking anticipation for the relaunch by releasing a number of cryptic clues related to the site's release date, building up a furor of excitement on the forums in the process. One flirty indication was a string of binary that translates to "Feeling Curious?"; another said, in Swedish, "The person who waits for something good never waits too long."
Several other quotes released by DPR and his team—all members of the original Silk Road community—reinforce the site's libertarian leanings. For example, Nelson Mandela's, "There is no such thing as part freedom," and Dwight D Eisenhower's, "History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid." Community members have been scrambling over these, pulling their efforts together to decipher what they mean.
Everyone involved, it's fair to assume, is very excited. But regardless of whether the new site can live up to its history as the deep web's go-to marketplace, it's arguably more remarkable that within just a month of the original Silk Road being closed down, another version has come into existence.
The War on Drugs is familiar with these patterns of surge and bust. Online, as in the real world, any victory claimed by international trafficking police is usually followed by a setback as the demand for drugs keeps the supply chain kicking along. The most recent example is the phenomenon of legal highs and research chemicals; as soon as one substance is banned, a dozen more are created by slightly modifying the chemical structure to avoid breaking any laws.
All in all, 243 new drugs have appeared since 2009, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. This demonstrates both how futile and dangerous it is to blindly ban any new substance that emerges. It doesn't stop anyone from using whatever alternative appears on the market a week or two later, and leaves the user at increased risk. Although strikingly similar on a molecular level, these slightly modified drugs can have very different effects on users than their original incarnations.
These deep web marketplaces follow the same process—shut one down and the community simply migrates, or other new sites spring up within a matter of days. As such, there's a danger to shutting them down in the first place. When there's a regulated—albeit still illegal—retailer to buy your narcotics from, you can check ratings and reviews and have a good idea that the stuff you're getting has a high purity level, meaning the drug is both more effective and far less likely to kill you.
When that disappears, you're forced to either buy on the street—leaving yourself open to product that's full of cutting agents and other nasty stuff—or move your custom to a new site. And unless that new site comes with positive, reliable reviews, you might be putting more than just your money on the line.
The online community of drug users that has sprung up around these sites is also a useful legacy of the original Silk Road. If people are going to continue taking heroin, cocaine, LSD, and whatever else they can get their hands on regardless of what law enforcement agencies do to stop them, doesn't it make sense to have a resource where people can learn how to use those substances safely? On the Sil Road discussion boards you can find advice about recommended doses and vital paraphernalia for both first-time and long-time users.
So, as today's re-launch of Silk Road shows, the War on Drugs is just as pointless online as it is in the real world.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
This story is part of VICE's ongoing production of a feature-length documentary on the Silk Road's history and future, as well as the story of DPR and Ross Ulbricht's arrest. If you have legitimate information or stories to share, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We won't share any of your info unless we come to a formal agreement.
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