Will Putting Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht Behind Bars Accomplish Anything?

05/28/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Friday Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht will be sentenced. He faces the possibility of between 20 years to life behind bars because drugs were bought and sold on his website. The prosecution is painting him as a major drug dealer and blaming him for the deaths of six people who overdosed (without acknowledging that our current drug policies lead to 35,000 accidental overdose deaths per year).

On the eve of his sentencing, it's worth considering: what will we actually accomplish by putting this man away?

The fact is, the existence of Silk Road proved something we all know to be true: millions of people around the world want to use and buy drugs. As many have argued, including my former colleague Meghan Ralston and Phil Smith on Alternet, Silk Road's online marketplace actually reduced the harms of drugs in several key ways.

  • Silk Road reduced the potential violence associated with buying drugs. By taking away the need for face-to-face interaction, Silk Road reduced the violence commonly associated with drug purchases. It also took power away from cartels.
  • It allowed for better knowledge about content and purity. One of the greatest dangers of drug use is that it's very difficult to know if you're getting what you intend to get, especially with today's rapidly diversifying synthetic market. Using a review system similar to what you'd see on Yelp or other sites, a seller who was not representing his or her product accurately would not have customers long, and a user could be sure about his or her purchase.
  • It encouraged harm reduction among users. Silk Road had a whole section of its site devoted to safer drug use practices. It's relevant and important that this kind of content reach people at the very place where they are making purchases.

Ulbricht's defense recognized this and included these arguments in their memo to Katherine Forrest, the judge handing down the sentencing. If nothing else, a shorter sentence might help acknowledge the reality that no matter what your opinion about drug sales, Silk Road served as harm reduction for these marketplaces.

Friday, the path of Ulbricht's life will be determined. But his sentencing will have little to no impact on those millions of people who will still buy and use drugs. Other online drug marketplaces will arise and the violent, wasteful drug war will carry on unchecked.

Unless we end 40 years of failure, and consider the lessons from Silk Road, and think about a new approach to drug use and sales.

Stefanie Jones is the nightlife community engagement manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Ross Ulbricht may be facing 30 years to life in prison.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.