How Silk Road Made Your Mailman a Dealer

How Silk Road Made Your Mailman a Dealer

Silk Road was the world’s first darknet market — a place where you could buy heroin, cocaine, LSD and countless other illegal drugs. It was a revolutionary idea, and made Ross Ulbricht a millionaire. Then the FBI took an interest, and the entire operation was brought down by greed, betrayal, and a series of trivial mistakes that led to a double life sentence. This is the story of Silk Road, Ulbricht, and how his libertarian idea of a free marketplace changed the world forever.

There was a time when you couldn’t buy heroin on the internet. Then came Bitcoin, and the golden years of Silk Road. Suddenly, taking a walk to the corner began to look ludicrous. Why risk inconvenience, bodily harm and the possibility of getting C-grade drugs when you could get some of the best stuff on the planet delivered to your door? In this new paradigm, your mailman was the dealer. Since Silk Road was founded, drugs worth hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed through postal networks around the world. And that’s despite the fact that not even 0.02% of the population owns Bitcoin.

To understand how this happened, we must unravel the story of a gifted entrepreneur and flawed visionary who created an online marketplace that did to illegal drugs what Amazon did to books. It’s the saga of how a self-taught programmer who evaded the law and abandoned his ideals to save his own ass. And how, on a fall day in a San Francisco library, things went very, very wrong for Ross Ulbricht. 

Ross Ulbricht

A man named Ross has an idea

You can’t send an email without the internet, and you can’t have an online drug bazaar without Bitcoin. Traditional forms of payment such as money orders just don’t cut it. But forget money orders, what about PayPal or a wire transfer? Both allow some level of anonymity, and the transacting parties never have to meet. However, there are problems here, too: wire transfers can be blocked, and PayPal transactions can be reversed after they’re sent. 

There’s also the minor inconvenience that the United States federal government can seize all of your money any time they please — even if you haven’t been accused of a crime. There are countless examples where bank accounts have been drained. That’s not to say your money isn’t safe in a bank — it is — it’s just that it’s not really your money. The government is allowing you to keep it, and should you misbehave, the federal government will gladly revoke your monetary privileges — like a father taking his son’s Xbox. Under such a system, it is impossible to build an online narcotic marketplace.  

That all changed when the genesis block of Bitcoin was mined in January 2009. For the first time in history, humanity had access to a censorship-resistant digital currency. Unlike PayPal, Bitcoin transactions can never be reversed. Unlike the banking system — as long as you keep your private keys secure — no entity can seize your funds or prevent you from sending them to another address. The day that a government can control what someone does with their Bitcoin is the day Bitcoin ceases to be Bitcoin. As soon as the early adopters realized that, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  

The beliefs behind the man

For as long as anybody had been paying attention, Ross Ulbricht was known as a libertarian — someone who believed in free will, and someone who believed that people should not be inhibited by the government. In 2008, before Bitcoin was introduced to the world, Ross was voicing his support for presidential candidate Ron Paul. “There’s a lot to learn from him and his message of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to be a free individual,” Ulbricht wrote in the Penn State newspaper. 

On his LinkedIn profile, Ulbricht wrote:

Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort.

Ross Ulbricht

Reading Ulbricht’s writing, it’s clear — even years before he conceived Silk Road — that he had a passion for freedom and reducing heavy-handed government policies. Ulbricht had a long-standing interest in creating a society where people could live according to their whims — a place where, as long as your actions didn’t harm others — people should be able to do as they please. To that end, he believed that a free-for-all marketplace would be the first step towards making his utopia a reality. Interestingly, it’s possible to draw a parallel between Silk Road and Facebook. 

In the early years, we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg coding all night, genuinely excited about the possibility of building a platform for people to connect on. He must have believed then, and perhaps still does, in the benevolence of Facebook. That the social media behemoth has instead become a propaganda-spreading, multibillion-dollar advertising machine is perhaps something Zuckerberg would prefer not to admit. A similar scenario played out for Ulbricht. His creation soured as time wore on — but in the beginning, it was with a beautiful belief in progress that Ulbricht imagined the ultimate libertarian marketplace. 

The genesis of Silk Road 

An excerpt of Ulbricht’s journal, back in 2010, read: “I began working on a project that had been in my mind for over a year. I was calling it Underground Brokers, but eventually settled on Silk Road. The idea was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them.” 

The idea, as it turned out, was a good one. In early 2011, Silk Road was launched. Initially, Ulbricht was the only vendor — selling psychedelic mushrooms he had grown and shipping them himself. A journal entry from the time says: “My first order. I’ll never forget it. The next couple of months, I sold about 10 lbs of shrooms through my site. Some orders were as small as a gram, and others were in the qp [quarter pound] range. Before long, I completely sold out […] Traffic started to build. People were taking notice, smart, interested people. Hackers.”

After he sold out of mushrooms, other vendors filled the gap. Quickly, they put a platter of the world’s most popular narcotics on sale. There was Colombian cocaine, Afghan heroin, Californian marijuana, Dutch ecstasy and enough LSD to enlighten a bank president. From the beginning, a high percentage of orders arrived on time and as described. As the market flourished, Ulbricht quickly proved that, given the chance to buy and sell an illegal product anonymously, people could generally be counted on to keep their word.  

This reliability was surprising. At the time Silk Road was founded, online shopping had not gained the widespread appeal it now holds. A not insignificant number of people felt that buying products online was the fastest, dumbest way to lose your money. Nonetheless, here was an online market taken to the furthest extreme — and nine times out of 10, it worked. By the time it was taken down, Silk Road has accumulated more than 13,000 individual drug listings — a broad spectrum of sobriety relievers including pain pills from America and hashish from the Far East. That there were so many listings, and such a large customer base, was due in no small part to an article published in June 2011. 

It was the Gawker article — published about six months after Ulbricht created Silk Road — that introduced the marketplace to the wider world. A platform previously only known by an underground group of hackers and tinkerers became a public phenomenon overnight. “Silk Road got its first press, the infamous Gawker article. When you look at the historical #s, you can see right when it happened. A huge spike in signups, and the beginning of an upward trend in commerce that would continue until the time of this writing,” Ulbricht wrote in his journal. 

Ulbricht — who had no formal programming experience — had been single-handedly maintaining the website up until this point. That he ever created a functional platform, and managed it by himself for months, illustrates the hours he worked and the passion he had for Silk Road. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, but after the Gawker article he had to admit that there were not enough hours in the day — and his knowledge of programming was too limited — to keep things up. It was time to enlist help. 

Silk Road grows in popularity

Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at the man and getting your drugs anyway. It’s about taking back our liberty and our dignity and demanding justice.

Ross Ulbricht

Ulbricht wrote these words a year after the founding of Silk Road — and his actions matched his rhetoric to a large extent, at least in the beginning anyway.

Within a year of Silk Road’s founding, he was making about $25,000 per month in commission, yet the new money wunderkind didn’t live in a penthouse or drive a BMW. Oblivious to these hedonistic temptations, Ulbricht continued to spend a majority of his time working on Silk Road. He had taken on several administrators, and described them in his journal: “SYG, the schmoozer who winds up being a waste, DA, the model employee. Super enthusiastic, hard working, and trainable. Then there is utah, professional who does it for the money.” 

Ulbricht then went on to describe another employee: “Around this time, Variety Jones showed up. This was the biggest and strongest willed character I had met through the site thus far. He quickly proved to me that he had value by pointing out a major security hole in the site I was unaware of.” Then there was the benevolent hacker. “At some point, a hacker found some major flaws in my code. I sent it to him for review and he came back with basically “this is amateur shit”. I knew it too.” 

In reading through Ulbricht’s journal, and other accounts of the time he spent running Silk Road, two things become evident. The first is that Ross is an articulate, largely rational person. It would be a simple task to walk onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and find someone more dangerously unhinged. The second striking feature of the Silk Road story is the role that luck played. At various times, people — like the hacker mentioned above — chose to help Ulbricht with his amateur coding rather than exploit bugs for their own benefit. It is conceivable, especially in the early days when Ulbricht alone was responsible for the website’s upkeep, that a single talented person could have brought the website down. 

But when it came to his personal safety, he left very little up to luck. Read through the journal, and there is little mention of Ulbricht discussing Silk Road with anyone in the real world. Under his Silk Road moniker Dread Pirate Roberts he was prolific, but Ulbricht had the good sense to remain tight-lipped when he wasn’t at his keyboard. This isn’t necessarily normal. It is human nature — especially if a person has been getting away with a crime — to discuss successes. It’s impressive that Ross kept this urge in check even as he went from being a run-of-the-mill rich guy to a more distinguished multimillionaire. 

Further reducing his chances of being apprehended, Ulbricht never sold any narcotics. Like many great cartel leaders, he presided over an international operation without ever seeing the product himself. On top of that, ironically, the entrepreneur largely avoided drugs. He admitted to smoking weed now and again, like half the state of California, but there’s no evidence of late-night cocaine binges or weeklong heroin benders. Apart from being the creator of Silk Road, Ulbricht was by and large a law-abiding citizen. 

Then there were the precautions he took in dealing with Silk Road workers. He demanded that his higher-level administrators send a picture of their driver’s license so he could know their identity. Naturally, this was a transfer of trust that Ulbricht never reciprocated. Even though he was vocal in the Silk Road forums and chatrooms, nobody, even at the very end, knew who he was. Figuring that out was up to three-letter intelligence agencies with nearly unlimited resources and decades of experience unmasking criminals. And yet, even for them, the job was a thankless one. They got there in the end, but the mistake that unmasked Ulbricht was a trivial one. Had luck gone his way just one more time, it’s impossible to say how much longer he could have gotten away with it.  

The bust 

Ross Ulbricht could have been a martyr. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to root for him if he hadn’t started spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have people killed. The entire story of Silk Road, and the ostensible injustice of his life sentence, is diminished by the transcripts of Ulbricht ordering hits on people he believed had wronged him, and also on a formerly trusted administrator who had been arrested. 

Instead of remaining true to his vision, Ulbricht expanded into the role of dictator — the ultimate ruler of a vast domain. Like Stalin and Mao before him, he turned to violence to maintain his vision — without realizing the vision dies the moment violence is introduced. It can be said then that the beginning of the end for Silk Road was the morning that a box of cocaine exploded in Curtis Green’s face. 

Curtis Green

A bad day for Curtis Green 

The box was delivered by an unusual-looking postal carrier, Green thought. The mailman looked somehow different in his jeans and sneakers. Nonetheless, he signed for the package, closed the front door and took it to his kitchen. Then, in what otherwise might have been a comedic moment, Green opened the box and a plume of cocaine shot up — covering his face and hands. And at this most inopportune of moments, just when you wouldn’t want any visitors, a SWAT team broke through the front door, rifles raised. 

Drug dealers get arrested all the time, but Green wasn’t just a drug dealer. He was a customer service agent for Silk Road, handling all of the mundane tasks that even an online drug bazaar must contend with. The federal government had been aware of his role on the website, and his tendency for buying drugs through the mail. But what investigators hadn’t realized was that Green had a direct line to Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht’s Silk Road alias. When the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) learned about the close relationship between the two men, their interest in Green increased substantially. 

Acting uncharacteristically fast, DEA agents began working Green — hatching plans to use him to catch Dread Pirate Roberts. They hid Green away in a hotel room, but before they could put him to good use, the plot took an interesting turn. When Ulbricht noticed that Green was not answering his messages, and had not been answering them for several days, he became rightfully suspicious. That suspicious was cemented when Ulbricht noticed that Green’s credentials had been used to steal Bitcoin worth more than $350,000 from a series of Silk Road accounts. Upon learning of the theft, Ulbricht — like so many visionaries-cum-tyrants before him — turned to violence. 

Ulbricht knew who Green was, and he wanted him dead. To that end, he contacted a man he knew from Silk Road — a person who went by the alias “Nob” — who Ulbricht believed to be a hitman. In actuality, Nob was an undercover DEA agent called Carl Force. As a lead investigator on the Silk Road case, Force happened to be the hotel room debriefing Green when he received the message from Ulbricht, asking him to kill Green. Force found himself sitting several feet away from a man he had been told to murder. And if that wasn’t enough, it would later be discovered that Force was the one who had stolen the $350,000 worth of Bitcoin from Silk Road. Had it not been for that unscrupulous theft, which Ulbricht attributed to Green, there would likely never have been a hit in the first place. 

This fascinating predicament worked out about as well as anyone could expect. DEA agents faked Green’s assassination by shoving his head underwater in a bathtub. They sent pictures of the fake assassination to Ulbricht, and Force assured him that the problem had been taken care of. Green, supposedly dead, was put on house arrest and later sentenced to time served — getting a lighter sentence than many others involved in the case. Carl Force was later sentenced to six-and-a-half years for his Bitcoin theft. But even after the faked assassination, and Force ingratiating himself with Ulbricht, the DEA was no closer to unmasking Dread Pirate Roberts. Their ploy with Green had turned out to be a dead end. The case, were it to be solved, would have to be approached from a different angle. 

Breadcrumbs on the internet 

The problem with the internet, at least if you’re running a multimillion-dollar drug marketplace, is that things don’t disappear. Even when user accounts are deactivated and posts deleted, a trace often remains. Ulbricht, who was nearly meticulous in his online habits, was not immune to this. 

It started at the FBI cybercrimes office, when a pair of lead investigators were rewarded for their months of dogged work. By analyzing Tor bundles, they were able to discover Silk Road’s IP address. This was a momentous breakthrough in the case, as it allowed the FBI to determine the physical location of Silk Road’s server: a data center just outside of Reykjavik. When the Americans presented their case, the Icelandic authorities proved extremely helpful, allowing the FBI to remove a mirrored drive of the Silk Road server. With that, the FBI could now analyze the marketplace’s inner workings. They could see how much work had gone into creating the website, how much time was spent on maintenance, and how much the then-unknown owner was making (about $7 million a year.) Most importantly, the FBI discovered a single master administrator, more than likely the creator of Silk Road: Dread Pirate Roberts.  

When they subpoenaed the master administrator’s VPN provider, they were given an interesting piece of information: this individual often worked from a café in San Francisco. Alas, they could not determine more than this, and progress ground to a halt. Then luck, which had been in Ulbricht’s favor for more than two years, began to work for the authorities. Gary Alford, a visiting agent from the IRS, happened to see the FBI’s proverbial corkboard displaying details about the master administrator in San Francisco. This reminded Alford of a lead he had stumbled upon several months previously. In investigating the marketplace, he had reverse-traced a Silk Road URL and found it posted on a shroomery forum. The person who had posted the URL went by the name “Altoid.” A Google search had revealed a Stack Overflow profile with that same unusual username. An email was associated with that account, and it didn’t take a master’s degree to figure out who it belonged to: the email on the account was rossulbricht@gmail.com. 

When Ulbricht had wanted to sell the mushrooms that he had grown himself, he posted a link to Silk Road on a shroomery forum without realizing that the username he had used could be traced. Even with a copy of Silk Road’s servers, the FBI had been unable to determine the identity of Dread Pirate Roberts — but the smallest of errors would finally unmask who he really was.

After running Ulbricht’s name, the FBI quickly discovered a few things. Investigators found his social media profiles, where he was fond of sharing his libertarian views — the same kind of material Dread Pirate Roberts posted on the Silk Road forums. They saw that the Department of Homeland Security had intercepted a box of fake IDs that had been addressed to Ulbricht. Although he had never been charged, the record of him ordering them remained. And finally, the FBI discovered that Ulbricht had publicly posted code on Stack Overflow that was an exact match with the code used for Silk Road. Any uncertainty the FBI had was eliminated — they had their guy. His name was Ross Ulbricht, he was a libertarian, and enjoyed working out of a café in San Francisco. The time for speculation was over — the time for action was nigh.  

The FBI goes to the library

Discussing the possibility of getting caught, Ulbricht wrote the following: “Realistically, the only way for them to prove anything would be for them to watch you log in and do your work.” 

The FBI did just that, and set up a surveillance team to watch Ulbricht. They noted that when he was at his laptop, Dread Pirate Roberts was online. When Ulbricht was away from home, Dread Pirate Roberts was offline. So aligned was the timing between the two that it all but confirmed what they already believed: Ross Ulbricht was Dread Pirate Roberts.  

Agents began to plan the arrest. Unlike hauling in a petty dealer, nabbing Ulbricht would require careful planning. The agency was aware that his computer was encrypted, and he could brick the hard drive at any time. Such a scenario would not do — the FBI was intent on catching Ulbricht in such a way that would allow them to access his laptop. There would be no men in balaclavas, breaking doors with iron rams — the operation would require finesse and careful timing. What they came up with was both improvised and awesome — ending the Silk Road saga in a way that matched the marketplace’s founding ideals: smart execution over gunplay and gravestones.  

On the day, the FBI secured an arrest warrant for Ross Ulbricht, to be served at the café he was so fond of working at. But at the last moment, he decided to go to the library instead. He chose a seat, opened his laptop, and began to work. The question for the agents was this: how can we make a move without giving him time to lock his laptop? The solution, as the best ones often are, was simple. Two plainclothes FBI agents, both of whom appeared to be homeless, approached Ulbricht. When they were close enough to get his attention, they began to fight — briefly attracting the gaze of the young entrepreneur. At that moment of distraction another FBI agent, who had been sitting close to Ulbricht, grabbed his laptop. Before he could grab it back, the woman was already out of reach and Ulbricht, who was surrounded by federal agents, was quickly arrested. The FBI had succeeded in retrieving his unlocked, undestroyed computer, and Ross Ulbricht’s life was laid bare for the agency to investigate.  

An analysis of the hard drive uncovered Bitcoin worth millions of dollars, along with his journal detailing the time he spent building and running Silk Road. The FBI could have convicted him without the computer — but with it and the evidence it contained, Ulbricht’s trial became a mere formality. In October 2013, the FBI shut down Silk Road, ending a two-year experiment in libertarian economics. Then, on June 1, 2015, Ulbricht was found guilty of aiding and abetting the distribution of drugs, running a criminal enterprise and computer hacking. He was handed a double life sentence — plus 40 years — without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht remains in prison to this day, and no petition, no matter how many votes, has been able to overturn the conviction. 

The aftermath 

Even though Silk Road did an estimated $1 billion worth of sales, only the thinnest slice of humanity ever had the chance to use it. So what was it actually like to use the most famous of darknet markets?

Buying Bitcoin wasn’t as easy then as it is now. There was no Coinbase, Kraken or Binance. Users typically had three options. The first was LocalBitcoins, which was founded in 2012. However, then as now, most of the offers were in large cities. The second option was using the brokers on Silk Road who, for a conversion fee, would sell Bitcoin in return for payment via PayPal or bank transfer. But this was very risky, and the third option was perhaps the most viable.

Someone who wanted some crypto could register with an obscure Bitcoin exchange. This exchange would provide that person with a payment number — a long string of letters and numbers. This could be taken to a pharmacy or grocery store that offered bill-paying services. The user would hand over an agreed-upon amount of cash and the store would communicate with the Bitcoin exchange, letting them know that a payment had been received. Several hours later, the coins would appear in the user’s account. 

Most exchanging was done on Mt. Gox. At the time, Mt. Gox was not the Pearl Harbor of the cryptocurrency world — it was just an exchange and people thought nothing of using it. During the early days, the price of Bitcoin hovered about $5, and whether it would ever reach $8 was a hotly debated topic. Many felt that anything more than $5 was unfeasible, and there was widespread sentiment that Bitcoin could fail at any time. Few people purchased Bitcoin as an investment, they bought it to spend it. Nobody wanted to be left holding the bag when this most glorious of experiments went the way of the dodo.  

Having made a trip to the grocery store and acquired Bitcoin, the crypto could now be sent to Silk Road. After the transaction was confirmed, a user could place their desired purchases into a cart and check out. Then, as now, it was common practice to send the seller an address encrypted via PGP. When a buyer clicked the final confirmation button, their Bitcoin was placed into an escrow account. The seller shipped the product and it was the buyer’s responsibility to release the crypto from escrow after they received their purchases in the mail. When there was a dispute over an undelivered package, an administrator like Curtis Green would step in to handle it.  

With this system, Ulbricht laid the groundwork for how a darknet market should work. Despite being a self-taught programmer, he had created an exceptional product that, at least yet, has not been significantly improved upon. And while that speaks well to his ability to design something lasting, a question must now be asked: have darknet markets made the world a better place?  

Inconvenient truths

In discussing the impact of Silk Road, it is critical to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. To say a darknet market is pure evil is to overlook some inconvenient truths — just as saying Silk Road solves the world’s drug woes ignores all that can go wrong. 

Opiate addicts (opiates being the likes of heroin, oxycontin and hydrocodone) are dying in their droves because of drugs tainted with fentanyl. It is inconvenient to test drugs bought on the street, and addicts are often in no position to do so. More often than not, they shoot up without knowing what they’re putting into their bodies — and the results are increasingly fatal. This is less of a problem for users who buy from darknet markets, where drugs tend to be purer and cut with innocuous ingredients. Before making a purchase, a user can check the reputation of a vendor to see whether they sell a high-quality product. And, should a vendor’s drugs be tainted, users can leave a review warning others to stay clear. No such system exists for the guy on the corner. 

Habitual drug users also find it safer to buy online. Addicts, troubled as they are, remain human beings — and if there is a safer way for them to buy, it can be argued they should have that opportunity. With a darknet market, a user can receive their drug of choice without frequenting dangerous parts of the city — setting themselves up to be mugged or worse. Building on this idea of physical safety, drugs delivered in the mail do not have territories. Drive-by shootings and other violent crimes are eliminated when the mailman is the dealer, not a testosterone-driven youth with a Glock pistol.

That said, there is the highly regrettable truth that, to a large extent, it is darknet markets that have enabled the fentanyl trade. It’s eerily easy to order enough of this powerful opiate to kill thousands of people at a time. While fentanyl could still be purchased even if all of the Silk Roads of the world were shut down, these marketplaces have accelerated the spread like gas on a fire. Aware of how detrimental this drug is to society, some markets have chosen to ban it — but this does little to stem the tide as there is always another market willing to put it on sale.

What’s more, darknet markets make drugs available to people who wouldn’t buy them otherwise. A 17-year-old old kid living in the suburbs might not dream of walking around the inner city trying to score  — but, if he can have some heroin discreetly shipped to his house, maybe he’ll give it a try. The drug trade is no longer limited by physical proximity, meaning those without contacts can now acquire anything they want. This continues to be the case irrespective of the efforts of law enforcement, although it’s certainly not for lack of effort.   

Darknet markets today, and the war waged on them

In June 2019 we saw — for only the second time in history — one million active daily Bitcoin addresses. Making the generous assumption that this represents one million individuals using Bitcoin (one person can have multiple addresses,) and taking Earth’s current population of 7.7 billion, we can see that just 0.013% of people actually use Bitcoin on a daily basis. And assuming that 10% of those who use the cryptocurrency also buy drugs with it, we can estimate just 0.0013% of the people on this planet are buying drugs online. That may not be a big number, yet it has been enough for darknet markets to thrive. 

Since the shuttering of Silk Road, roughly 50 darknet markets have come and gone. Some, like Empire market, have exit scammed (the website’s administrators steal the Bitcoin out of user accounts and disappear into the night.) Others, like AlphaBay, have been shut down by the authorities. These shutdowns are happening at an increasing rate and, credit where credit is due, the three-letter agencies have gotten very good at it. A recent example proves this point well.

Bitcoin is fully traceable, and because of that, darknet vendors often avoid major exchanges — preferring more anonymous cash-out options. One service, which ran for more than a year, allowed vendors to sell their Bitcoin for cash, no questions asked. A number of vendors laundered their money in this way and that was fine and good, except that the operation was being run by Homeland Security. The agency was able to locate dozens of dealers and arrest them en masse

Angel Melendez, the agent in charge of the sting, said: “For the past year, undercover agents have been providing money-laundering services to these dark net vendors, specifically those involved in narcotics trafficking. When we take down a dark net marketplace, these criminals will move to other marketplaces so the focus of this operation was really the bad actors, the people utilizing the dark net to sell drugs.”

There’s no stopping the darknet

With those arrest and many others like it, Homeland Security (and all of the other cooperating agencies) put a dent in the darknet community. But despite this achievement, law enforcement must understand what darknet users have already known for years: there is no stopping this movement. Even though the average life span of a darknet market is just eight months, according to Visual Capitalist, there are always new markets replacing the old. As of publication, DarkNetLive lists more than a dozen active marketplaces. Many are new, but some like Hydra have been going strong for years. 

Hydra is a Russian darknet market which has been around since the time of Silk Road. Allegedly the largest darknet market that’s currently active, it has so far been unaffected by some of the sweeping arrests of late. Like other markets, Hydra hosts thousands of drug listings, along with a myriad of other miscellaneous digital goods. Yet despite this long history, Hydra could be taken down at any moment. All it takes is finding the right person to snitch, or stumbling upon a seemingly minor detail like Ulbricht’s Stack Overflow account. Darknet users are accustomed to finding their favorite websites offline at the drop of the hat.  

Whether Hydra lasts another decade or is taken down tomorrow, it appears likely that — sometime in the future — there will be a market that’s beyond the reach of the law. A decentralized bazaar, perhaps running on Ethereum, which does not have a central server or administrator. Short of annihilating the blockchain that it runs on, there will not be a way to eradicate this new leaderless smorgasbord of immorality. At that point, when 0.1% of the world’s population are buying their drugs online rather than 0.0013%, in what way will society be affected?It’s a bold prediction, but an invincible marketplace could be the catalyst to change outdated drug laws. In the United States for instance, laws declare that productivity-reducing marijuana is worse than kills-tens-of-thousands-every-year fentanyl — and hard-to-stop-doing cocaine is not as bad as that wicked, family destroying peyote. Given these absurd regulations, rational discourse is needed about how narcotics are classified and how addicts are treated. So far, politicians have been mostly unwilling to discuss remedies, and in their silence, the irrational status quo prevails. But if darknet markets continue to proliferate, and a market that cannot be taken down is created, this could be the spark that ignites a long-dormant conversation — a dialogue about what we as a species value, and what we need to change. Ross Ulbricht didn’t get to see Silk Road become the pre-eminent market in the world but, for better or worse, his influence on humanity has been lasting.