The Drug War Moves to the Silk Road

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The glory days for the online drug bazaar Silk Road appear to be receding into the distance, with another high-profile arrest this week.

On Thursday, federal officials charged a 26-year-old Nebraska man for allegedly selling cocaine, a pistol and counterfeit currency over the website. The man, Sheldon Kennedy, now faces 20 years in prison for trafficking a controlled substance and charges related to guns found in his residence.


His bust follows the arrest of the site’s alleged mastermind, Ross Ulbricht, aka "Dread Pirate Roberts,” in October 2013, as well as other drug-related takedowns.

Federal authorities are sending the message that they’re watching. Whether that will actually quell the rise of online drug sales, however, is another question.


The strategy seems straight out of the traditional drug-war playbook: keep arresting people until the problem goes away. Street corner busts didn’t do much to stem the flow of drugs into the U.S., though. So you might wonder if the same plan will do any better on the web.

Selling drugs online isn’t anything new. According to one account, the first e-commerce transaction was actually of a bag of marijuana, sold online 40 years ago (prophetically, Sheldon Kennedy noted this on his Twitter account earlier this month).


And even as the Silk Road flounders, other sites have been popping up. International sales could clearly pose a problem, too: tracking down drug dealers on the other side of the planet could get expensive.

In the end, it might not be law enforcement that keeps people away from illicit drug sites. It might just be a fear of getting ripped off.


Bitcoin may have seemed like the perfect vehicle for illegal transactions, but after $2.7 million in bitcoins essentially vanished last week from a resurrected Silk Road, buyers may be increasingly nervous about purchases through sketchy intermediaries.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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