Judge Katherine Forrest’s decision to lock up Ross Ulbricht for the rest of his life is a momentous tragedy. There were other tragic circumstances on display during Ulbricht’s trial, however. Submitted as evidence against the integrity of the Silk Road were stories of drug overdoses that were allegedly tied to products bought on the darknet drug market. The loss of life in these cases is something we should never look at as unimportant, but their use in condemning Ulbricht’s market are seriously problematic.
“I have no doubt in my mind, that if Preston had not taken that drug which one of his friends had purchased off the internet Silk Road, he would still be alive today,” wrote one grieving mother from Australia. Her son had jumped to his death after purchasing what he may have thought was LSD, but was actually a synthetic known as NBOMe. First please let us take note of where such synthetics come from, a need to produce new designer chemicals which are often more unstable, untested, and easily passed off as what we know to be much safer psychoactive chemicals. The parents and siblings grieving in these cases misplace their ire. What truly led to many people ingesting dangerous chemicals was in fact the laws that are now being used to send Ross Ulbricht to prison. Also worth recognizing is that at the time of ingestion, there was no federal ban on these substances and, at least in America, they could be found or sold discreetly in wholly legal forms of exchange.
Notice also the subtle dehumanization of drug users masquerading as compassion. When someone overdoses people do not recognize the choice of the individual. They do not talk about these people as individual agents, but as symptoms of the individual. In the Silk Road case, parents condemn what Ulbricht’s venue provided for their children — a safe and discreet way to obtain psychoactive chemicals. They would have never sought out these drugs had it not been for Silk Road. This is doubly dehumanizing. They characterize their son’s purchase as somehow inevitable, that he was too weak to help himself and too ignorant to know the dangers inherent in hard drug use. But what compounds the dehumanization of drug consumers in this treatment is that they declare that drug markets OUGHT to be unsafe, ought to be insecure. Their son is a mere exception to the scummy and disposable drug world, he was corrupted by looking through a window to a drug trade which didn’t pose enormous risk to his safety. Drug users, drug distributors, they don’t deserve safety to these people.
Many who are involved in drug subcultures aim to make consumption safer for those who choose freely to consume these substances. Along with being able to read customer reviews that keep merchants within these bazaars held accountable by reputation, there is frequent encouragement to buy test kits for these chemicals. Across the internet you will find no shortage of FAQs on how to prudently go into an experience with drugs, especially for psychedelic experiences which are often delicate and require a good deal of coaching to ensure the best set and setting. At raves across the country people are encouraged by their peers to consume judiciously, to stay hydrated, and most of all to enjoy their experience — which is a frame of mind directly hindered by drug laws and cultural taboos.
These are all voluntary, spontaneous modes of behavior, many born out of a genuine concern for one’s fellow drug users. They are treated as individuals, not addicts. They are met with care, compassion, and resources both physical and mental. What drove these markets underground, what made them more dangerous than they ever needed to be is the intention behind these laws and tragically behind the condemnation of Ulbricht and others as “psychopaths” from people who lost those they loved. It is this legislation, this judicial process, and these cultural norms that must change. We must recognize drug users not as inherently sick and lascivious, but as people who come from the same world as we do, who sought these chemicals not out of an alien urge that overtook them, but because drugs come with a great deal of reward to the user. We can’t let that reward go unchecked from the dangers that are there for those who choose willingly to accept it. We must abolish not only the laws, but the puritanical attitudes which make us see our neighbors and our loved ones as fraught with illness for wanting to get high. It’s time. We must step out of the shadows, break the back of the system that has kept us there, and bring this enormous wealth of human experience into its proper social context. Free Ross Ulbricht, free all drug criminals, and end this dehumanization campaign once and for all.