Heroin listings on Silk Road
Silk Road 2.0, the successor to the deep web's most infamous marketplace, just passed a new milestone. After a dramatic holiday season, when three of its staff and several vendors were arrested on conspiracy charges, there are now over 10,000 narcotics listings on its pixelated shelves. And, according to its acting administrator "Defcon", traffic to the website has doubled since December.
So it appears that the site – where you can anonymously get your hands on pretty much any substance you want, as well as a bunch of other illegal stuff that you'd usually need Turkish mob connections to access – is just as resilient to the feds as its current owners had promised it would be.
And far from the digital trap house many have depicted it to be, Silk Road 2.0 has continued its predecessor's aim of allowing drug users to make informed decisions about their use of psychoactive substances, both by providing products that are open to quality checks and through the spread of honest information about how to take those products as safely as possible.
This sharing of drug-related knowledge isn't uncommon online; websites like Erowid allow drug users to post accounts of their experiences, which has resulted in a huge encyclopaedia of pretty much every substance ever snorted, inhaled, injected or ingested, no matter how esoteric. Alongside the testimonies are meticulously detailed specifications for recommended doses, as well as checklists of potential side effects. A more recent service is Tripsitters, a forum staffed by volunteers that guides those who want their help through particularly intense trips.
"Drug addicts [and users] aren't as stupid as many people like to think they are," said Harry, who was a heroin and crack addict for 15 years and now buys his supply from Silk Road. "Addicts know more about drug dosage than most people."
Utilising all that first-hand knowledge, these databases aim to provide unbiased alternatives to the occasionally vague and misleading information shared by government schemes. Which, although having the safety of drug users as their priority, sometimes pose a danger by spreading information that isn't quite detailed enough – like the time Talk to Frank equated laughing gas with butane, the former being relatively safe, the latter being something that can make your heart stop, even in small doses.
Fernando Caudevilla, AKA "Doctor X"
One of the services specific to the Silk Road community are the postings of "Doctor X", a fully trained physician. Known as Fernando Caudevilla when he's doing his day job in various harm reduction projects, Doctor X invites Silk Road members to ask him anything they think he might be able to help them with.
There is information available online, "but drug users need more", the doctor told me. "They need answers, and that's what I try to provide. People ask me about the real risks and adverse effects, drug combinations [illegal and prescriptive] and the use of drugs in persons suffering from different conditions, such as diabetes or neurological problems."
Doctor X started posting in June of 2013 and received more than 600 questions and 50,000 visits over the course of three months. Having built up a reputation for his advice, he was asked by members of the community to continue his work on Silk Road 2.0 when the original site was seized by the FBI in October of last year.
As he doesn't charge for his services – though some users have apparently provided very generous donations – Doctor X's only motives are to provide a service to drug users that typically isn't available from other medical professionals. "Many of the taboos and prejudices that existed about sexuality 50 years ago have been translated to drug users," he told me. "If you use drugs, that means you're an immoral, irresponsible person who takes no care of his health. I think my work proves that this is false. Drug users have questions and they don't ask them to professional health care because they are afraid to be judged. They prefer to ask them in an internet forum."
And it's not just the community that has formed around Silk Road that makes the website a safer place for drug users to source whatever substance it is they want to source, but also the substances themselves.
"The purity of drugs like heroin on the Silk Road tends to be a lot stronger than what you get on the street," Harry told me. "Most people, I imagine, would automatically think that was a bad thing – that it made it more dangerous. But, in my experience, the opposite is true."
Reviews of heroin bought on Silk Road (Click to enlarge)
When you're buying drugs the traditional way – waiting two hours for a runner to turn up, hopping in the backseat of their Audi, making stilted conversation about what you're going to do with the damp coke they just sold you – you can rarely be confident about the quality of the substance you're buying. For example, there was a spate of deaths from a drug called PMA, which is often sold as MDMA but takes longer to kick in, meaning users might take too much too quickly and put themselves in serious danger.
This kind of thing can be particularly worrying for addicts, as Harry explained: "What causes overdoses is when the purity level of what you're buying fluctuates. When a user is getting a low purity [product] for a consistent amount of time, and then for some reason that supply stops, they go and seek another. That new supply can often turn out to be a lot stronger than [what] they expect and what they're used to. Unwittingly, they use what they think is the same dose, and it actually turns out – because the gear was three or four times purer – that they've just injected a massive overdose."
With Silk Road, however, users know what to expect. Customers leave reviews and ratings, and, in such a competitive market, only the vendors who consistently provide a good quality product will survive. So rather than the impurities and inconsistencies you'd find wrapped up in a week-old Euromillions ticket – where there is "no way of knowing how strong any given batch is, [making] it near impossible to manage dosage properly" – the site provides an environment where customers can purchase their drug of choice confident in what the package contains, ultimately reducing the chance of a fatal overdose.
A listing for black tar heroin
As Harry pointed out, there may also be something specific to the mail order model of online drug marketplaces that make it easier for drug users to control their intake. Since the product can take several days to arrive, "ordering stuff online helps me to limit what I use and plan it out while I'm in a more responsible frame of mind", he said. "Not being able to just buy it on a whim enables me to have a lot of control over my drug use."
Of course, this might not be true for everyone. But even though Silk Road can't take all the credit for helping Harry control his drug intake, the deep web site has certainly played some kind of role in regulating his use. Today, instead of "being a burden and social pariah […] costing society through crime and treatment", Harry is, in his own words, a "responsible contributing member" to his family and wider community, and is now able to "live a normal life, go to work and avoid all the financial, social and health problems that come with drug addiction".
Silk Road is a good thing for drug users from a harm reduction point of view, mostly due to the community that has sprung up around it. Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely authorities will ever take that line of thought, but then their stance towards deep web drug markets isn't particularly relevant now that the model has been established.
They can fight the sites all they want – as they've already been doing for the past few months – but every time they close one down, another is likely to pop up just as fast. As Doctor X put it: "MP3 and file transfer systems caused a revolution in the audio-visual [world]. You can shut down Napster, but once the technical innovation is achieved, there is no way back."
This story is part of VICE's ongoing production of a feature-length cinema 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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org – we're specifically looking for users of the original site and the group known as the LSD Avengers. If you want to communicate securely, an encryption key can be found on www.josephfcox.com. We won't share any of your info unless you formally agree to do so.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
More stories about Silk Road: