A new study argues that online black marketplaces, such as the infamous Silk Road, can actually reduce the number of drug related-violent crimes.
The researchers' argument is simple: online drug traffickers act more like wholesalers, and since online markets limit the scope of direct interaction between the traffickers — blurring or removing territorial boundaries, there is less of a chance for violent confrontation.
Entitled "Not an 'Ebay for Drugs': The Cryptomarket 'Silk Road' as a Paradigm Shifting Criminal Innovation," the paper argues that a substantial proportion of transactions on the original Silk Road could be characterised as 'business-to-business' deals, made at substantial prices typical of those paid by drug dealers sourcing stock.
In other words, a lot of Silk Road purchases were not made by end users, but rather by resellers. The result is that researchers concluded the platform was a potentially transformative for the illegal market:
"With the key Silk Road customers actually drug dealers sourcing stock for local street operations, we were witnessing a new breed of retail drug dealer, equipped with a technological subcultural capital skill set for sourcing stock."
Trade without frontiers
Décary-Hétu and Aldridge point out that the number of wholesaler deals on Silk Road must have reduced violence, intimidation and territorialism. In effect, violence was rendered obsolete, as the web cannot not be used to go after the competition, protect one's turf or take over another trafficker's market.
Other 'skills' came to the forefront. On illicit cryptomarkets, good customer service and writing skills were more important than muscles, the paper found.
The added layer of anonymity offered drug traffickers and their clients more security, not just from law enforcement, but from each other, the paper asserts.
However, due to the nature of Silk Road, the paper's conclusions are not substantiated by hard numerical data.
The researchers focused on scale instead, arguing that the volume and size of individual transactions carried out on Silk Road proves that many drug dealers used it to stock up, avoiding direct contact with traditional suppliers.
Between mid-2012 and mid-2013, sales on Silk Road increased from $14.4m to $89.7m, so the researchers make the assumption that these transactions involved zero violence, and that selling $89.7 million worth of drugs the old-fashioned way would have resulted in some level of violence.
Researchers also found that most Silk Road traffickers sold less addictive and less harmful drugs than their street counterparts, pointing out that heroin, crack and methamphetamine accounted for a very small share of marketplace traffic.
Drop in the ocean
However, even Décary-Hétu and Aldridge admit that the effect of Silk Road on the general drugs market was negligible. The United Nations estimates the global market for illicit drugs at more than $300bn, making Silk Road a drop in the ocean.
In spite of this, the pair believe criminologists should examine Silk Road records for vital information on the potential uses of cryptographic technologies in the illicit drug trade.
However, there are other avenues as well. The original Silk Road may now be out of business, but a new version is already thriving and its relative success has spawned a number of copycat operations.
Criminal with knife via Shutterstock