Anything is possible on the Silk Road

Note Feb 2012: A different (much shortened!) version of this blog post has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

Much of the research and discussion about drugs and the internet has focused upon either buying drugs online or seeking drug-related information online. News coverage has particularly focused upon the capacity to buy drugs from web vendors (eg, Psychedelic drugs just a click away online, Deadly drug on the net).

Yet, evidence from the last decade indicates that most drug transactions still occur in the traditional way.

Popular illegal drugs are not generally available online: unless the product can be marketed as ‘legal’ or ‘not for human consumption’, the legal risk and practical problems associated with selling heroin, MDMA, amphetamines, and cannabis through an online marketplace are just too big, for both buyers and sellers.

It’s not that the demand doesn’t exist for online drug vendors. I interviewed forum moderators for my thesis who prohibited ‘sourcing’ on their message boards and regularly edited, closed or removed discussions they believed were motivated by attracting potential sellers.

An example would be a forum user posting that ‘isn’t it hard to find ecstasy in Perth at the moment’. If anyone in Perth had ecstasy to sell, they could send a private message to the OP offering their services.

Although this was possible and likely occurred despite swift moderator action to remove those threads, most forum users did not use the internet to buy drugs.

In a paper I will be presenting next week at #comtech2011, forum users discussed their views on talking about drugs in public online forums and their strategies to avoid the risk of incriminating themselves.

One popular strategy was to avoid all discussion of supply or dealing so as not to attract the attention of law enforcement who may be watching the forums. Most believed that law enforcement were after ‘dealers, not users’.

I conducted those interviews 3 years ago in 2008. In 2011, the situation has shifted considerably with the arrival of Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace where anything* can be bought or sold.

Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using TOR anonymising software. TOR uses encryption to make it impossible for anyone to trace your IP address.

The front page of Silk Road looks a lot like an Amazon or an Ebay. Goods and services for sale are categorised. Sellers receive ratings from buyers and comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and the level of professionalism and discreteness of the transaction. Trust in sellers is built on reputation.

Silk Road traders use the anonymous currency Bitcoin. This decentralised international currency operates through peer-to-peer technologies. It has an exchange and a lively forum of users.

The possibilities of a non-government-controlled anonymous international currency are quite mind-boggling. The obvious possibility is being played out right now on Silk Road: buying and selling illegal products is now possible and may dramatically increase in the near future.

What may stop an exponential increase in the use of anonymous online drug marketplaces is the hurdle of delivery. At the end of the transaction, the physical product still needs to be sent to the buyer.

Sending products between countries allows Customs the opportunity to intercept packages and potentially attempt to arrest the would-be importer. Sending products within the same country may make arrest less likely.

There are also fairly large barriers to entry for most ordinary people who might want to buy drugs online. Installing and using TOR, buying and using Bitcoins in a secure way, and taking the risk of fraud or arrest through package tracing from Customs may deter the majority of would-be users. In a recent example of the volatility of this new system, Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox was hacked, causing the currency to rapidly devalue.

But for the minority who master these concerns and are willing to take the risk, Silk Road and its successors have forever changed how the internet can be used to source drugs.

After all, buying drugs in the real world also involves considerable risk. For some, the online equivalent may prove more secure than trying to arrange a standard deal.

The extent to which law enforcement can bring down a site like this is yet to be seen. Equally, the extent to which ordinary drug users will use this new technology is also unknown. Needless to say, if anonymous online drug markets do end up expanding into mainstream drug markets, they will pose a real challenge to existing drug laws and policies.

All I can say is that I will be following Silk Road’s progress with great interest.

* In this exchange from Silk Road’s founder, he notes that some goods/services are not tolerated due to their capacity to harm others and attract controversy. In this category, he includes pedophilia, hitmen and counterfeit currency.

Note: An edited version of this article has also been published at Injecting Advice, a site for NSP workers and injectors. Thanks Nigel!

28 thoughts on “Anything is possible on the Silk Road”

  1. Hi there – thanks so much for the comment.

    I imagine you’ve read the forums to the same extent I have and can see that there appears to be a mix of good and bad sellers and buyers in the marketplace. Unless – and this is a distinct possibility – the forums are just a scam too, made up of posts from bogus participants, to make it look like there is lots of legitimate activity -to attract buyers to the scam.

    For the record, a friend of a friend (in Australia) has successfully purchased high-quality MDMA from the same seller on 5 occasions. They are thrilled with their purchase…

  2. Paratracker

    I don’t know about you, but that picture looks like cannabis to me. Are you sure that’s sage?

  3. Thanks guys for commenting. We are just applying to begin a research study into Silk Road, as it is such an innovation in drug market structures. I’ll keep this thread informed πŸ™‚

  4. It makes me happy that people are taking the time to research this stuff. Thanks Monica and all associated for your work!

  5. Thanks for sharing Mister X. And I didn’t know they had a facebook page. It’s quite clear they are interested more in promotion than discretion.

  6. hi b7 – of course the centre of Silk Road is being able to participate anonymously. However they don’t appear to be concerned about promotion of the site. It’s true that the Facebook and Twitter accounts could be fakes or just run by Silk Road fans. But the state of the road addresses and other statements by DPR seem to indicate an interest in promotion. This is not surprising given promotion = increased sales = increase commission… but it also indicates a confidence in the site’s ability to evade law enforcement…

  7. Hi
    I am only new to silk road, I have made a couple of successful purchases of mdma and meth.
    And one purchase of fake meth:( supposedly from a trusted vendor.
    I guess u get the good with the bad.

    I am happy with the two good transactions and the price is much better than on the streets here and also somewhat safer then having to organize and meet people out somewere and risk getting pulled over and found with drugs by the police or worse.

    In the case of the mdma, me and a couple mates had it over the weekend and it was so much cleaner and better than anything I have had in years, the xtc pills that get around here are pretty much duds and who knows what’s in them.

    The meth, wow I had .1 and stayed awake into the next day, it was a third of the price than street price here for a gram, and again much safer then buying from some scetchy crack head on the street and run the risk of being pulled over by the cops and found with it.

    Ok I do realise it is very much illegal BUT it is somewhat safer and atleast I’m not lining the pockets of bikies and organized crime gangs who import kilos upon kilos, cut the product 5 fold and then sell it for a very exaggerated price.

    I hope I havnt said anything I wasn’t ment to but I’d like to get my point of view across.
    I am just a recreational drug user who is sick of taking the unknown(xtc) and paying ripped off prices.

  8. Thanks Mr? – many people have emphasised the benefits they get from buying through this system in terms of reduced face-to-face interaction with criminal organisations/gangs/dealers. We are starting up interviews with Silk Road users/sellers soon (all anonymous and online) so let me know if you are interested in further discussion πŸ™‚

  9. Hello Monica,

    I find this discussion and interesting and am curious to know if the Silk Road website is currently accessible from within a country such as Australia?

    I am assuming that the website web address would have to continue to change as worldwide governments will block the website (if known)

    If you (or anyone else) know of the current and active Silk Road website address, I would be interested have further info.

    Thanks in advance

    Jolly Ramshet

  10. Actually the web address remains the same – I’m not going to list it here but it won’t take you longer than 5 minutes to find it through Google.

    Governments can’t block it or shut it down because it is in the hidden web so can’t be traced/tracked in the same way as standard web sites. The proposed internet filter will have no effect on Silk Road in Australia if implemented.

  11. I should say the web address remains the same after it was changed in November 2011 πŸ™‚

  12. Thanks Monica. Yes, what you state makes perfect sense and thank you for the clarification.

    All the best with your blog πŸ™‚

    Jolly Ramshet

  13. Many of the positive (if you can call them that) points made in the comments make me want to try this. I was very against it sending money to an anonymous user first, much the same as using amazon and ebay the first time.

    In person, It is very disturbing buying cannibus from an unknown individual, with out knowing the type, thc %, or grower/method. Unfortunately, it is pretty much the only possible way in the USA.

    I was just curious is there is a large amount of risk involved with the shipping of illegal goods, more specifically with receiving them.

  14. It depends on a lot of factors, but in the end, there is certainly risk here – more risk with receiving than sending. The factors affecting the level of risk include your country of origin, the country the drugs are to be shipped from, the substance, how it is packaged, the amounts (for personal use or more than that), etc. It’s not just law enforcement but also the risk of being ripped off you have to consider.

    It obviously works for some people but I’d be very cautious. If you are interested in better understanding the risks, take a look at the community forums on Silk Road – you’ll need Tor to log in but there’s no more technical know-how required to just browsing the discussion.

  15. Tried to purchase 30 roxicodone 30mg from silk road. Went through supposedly the most trusted vendor. Western union him $425 and he totally ripped me off! He even would email me to rub it in my face he ripped me off. Stay away from quickrx. Email address is

  16. Um, why did you use Western Union? The whole system on Silk Road relies on use of Tor and Bitcoin together. If you go outside of that, there is no reason why you won’t be scammed. Also, how did you decide this person was ‘trusted’? People can say whatever they like in their seller profiles.

    there’s a lot of complexity involved in these transactions and I do think there will be a lot of scams – but the Silk Road system appears to provide some ways of developing trust if you use it with Bitcoin, Tor, Encryption and judicious use of the forums to research your vendors. Even with all that it’s still a risky game (buying drugs in general!).

  17. Hoffa, you weren’t on the real silk road website, I went to the one you did yoko and that same person, who accepted cash as Sara Grant from Fresno CA has been scamming people as rxfastship constantly. The real silk road is not, that’s probably a sure set up just to scam.

  18. Hi,
    Just wanted to add that Silkroad is still up and running but the various Law enforcement agencies around the world are starting to make busts on people that are being lazy. If you are going to use the Silkroad then make sure you take precautions. For starters use a Private VPN for when you are doing anything related to the Silkroad, even just looking for info on the net about it or buying and selling your bit coins. Always use fake names and throw away the username and email and fake name after each transaction. Be safe people.


  19. Curious. Would this method of buying contribute to a reduction of the violence etc etc endemic in the drug world at the coal face . Possible?

  20. Hello my friend! I want to say that this article is awesome,
    great written and include almost all significant infos. I would like
    to look more posts like this .

  21. Hi there, just wondering if anyone can tell me if SR is still running or is there another safe site to go through?

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