The week of February 15, 2015

Final thoughts from the Silk Road trial

By Patrick Howell O'Neill

Facing a possible sentence of life in prison, Ross Ulbricht smiled in court.

Charged with creating and operating the infamous Silk Road, Ulbricht sat looking at an old friend who was testifying against him to avoid a prison sentence of his own. To his left sat the judge presiding over the case, to the right, the jury that would decide his fate.

The federal prosecutor asked Richard Bates, Ulbricht’s old friend, to identify the man he knew invented and ran Silk Road by pointing out what he was wearing. Bates, who seemed on the verge of tears during much of his testimony, couldn’t muster a response. Ulbricht smiled and held up his navy sweater toward Bates, who finally used the outfit to point out his friend for the court record.

Silk Road made hundreds of millions of dollars, prosecutors said, fighting what many consider archaic policy.

“The ‘war on drugs’ is over,” Ulbricht once wrote under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts, “and the guys with the bongs have won. Victory is sweet.”

Victory has turned bittersweet for Ulbricht—he was found guilty on all seven counts—but his larger point stands. Silk Road may be dead, but there’s no questioning its impact and legacy; Dark Net markets are bigger than ever. More importantly, the last decade has seen a tectonic shift in global opinion. For the first time ever, a majority of Americans favor legalizing, treatment, and scientific research of drugs over the harsh jail sentences that have characterized U.S. law for so long.

“The ‘war on drugs’ is over and the guys with the bongs have won. Victory is sweet.”

But it’s not just “the guys with the bongs” who’ve won. As Taylor Hatmaker reports, new sorts of drugs called nootropics are being experimented with in efforts toward self-improvement and new psychonautic frontiers, and much of the marijuana industry is moving toward “dabs and other refined cannabis products.”

Behind food and oil, drugs are the third biggest economic force on earth. Legalization is already driving a green boom in U.S. states like Colorado, and as S.E. Smith argues in this issue, could save America’s economy. Silicon Valley has certainly taken notice.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Could a legal Silk Road be that far off?

Illustration by Max Fleishman