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The Drugs Dilemma at World Economic Forum 2014: Right for Another Reason

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I was in the room as the World Economic Forum took a courageous step by hosting The Drugs Dilemma, the Forum's first-ever debate on drug policy, held during the Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters. The session's panelists -- former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth -- presented the facts: hundreds of thousands of people killed in drug-related violence, historically unparalleled levels of incarceration, and increasing drug use worldwide. President Santos suggested the world is on a static bicycle, working harder than ever to reduce drug consumption but making no sustained progress. Annan and Roth made a plea for leaders to admit that the current model of crime and punishment has done more harm than good and to begin considering alternatives. Although I agree with the panelists that drug policy merits reappraisal, they were right in part for another reason.

There is a new front in the war on drugs that went unmentioned during the session but is increasingly relevant. As the world has moved online, so has the drug trade. Having carved a home in the Deep Web -- the vast digital realm that houses the overwhelming majority of the Internet's content and that is generally navigated using specialized, anonymous browsers -- a growing portion of the illegal drug trade now derives its success from exploiting the very technologies and trends that governments, activists and the military rely on.

The first critical component is Tor, a Deep Web browser conceived by the US Navy and sponsored by organizations ranging from the Broadcasting Board of Governors to the US Department of State. Used extensively to coordinate and disseminate ideas on the Arab Spring, Tor has proven uniquely valuable in protecting human rights by enabling whistle blowing, censorship evasion and independent journalism in regions where freedom of speech and information do not exist. The second is the recent rise of cryptocurrencies, which in conjunction with Tor created the ideal ecosystem for marketplaces to deal illicit substances, goods and services.

The most renowned market was the Silk Road, which received mainstream media coverage after being shut down by the FBI in October 2013. In just over two years, the Silk Road grew from an experimental concept into a powerful business, facilitating sales between 60,000 customers and vendors per day and generating $1.2 billion in revenue. The site's cadre of administrators accumulated over $80 million in profit, ranking them among the world's highest paid executives.

The site's seizure did not sustainably decrease access to online drug markets. Whereas the FBI spent over two years in pursuit of the Silk Road, it took just days for myriad other sites with even tighter security to replace it. On the panel at the Annual Meeting,President Santos described this "balloon effect" in geographic terms: when Colombia reduced its cocaine production by 60 percent, production simply moved to neighboring countries.

Roth explained, "The way to stop the balloon from shifting is to puncture the balloon. You puncture it by destroying the market, and you do that by decriminalizing." But without decriminalization, what will the drug markets look like in 2020? According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction, before the Silk Road was shut down, it enabled 18 percent of American drug users to get high, with similar figures for Europe and Australia. As anonymous browsers and cryptocurrencies become standard, and as players both large and small exploit technological innovations to make selling and buying drugs increasingly simple, how will the drug trade adapt?

We can look to other pioneering industries for clues. Adoption trends have been demonstrated by markets such as Amazon and eBay, which, once intimidating for a non-tech savvy person, are today universally accepted. However, the most alarming implication concerns the power that these markets unlock by pivoting from peer-to-peer (p2p) models to business-to-consumer models (b2c), thereby enabling established entities to create new distribution channels. After such a transition, eBay became a $14 billion company, reaching communities worldwide.

What will happen if cartels enter today's nascent black marketplaces? Will their growth be commensurate with their lawful counterparts? If so, what will be the implications? Twice, the Silk Road's top administrator used the site to hire assassins. How often would that happen if the business were run by cartels using b2c distribution models? Unless we find a way to deflate the balloon, they may provide the answer before we are ready to respond.

The first step in solving the drugs dilemma is entering into a frank conversation on current policy. We owe thanks to the World Economic Forum for taking this lead. There, Annan declared, "I believe drugs are bad and have destroyed many lives, but wrong governmental policy has destroyed many more."

Can we speak such brave words in the United States, where taxpayer dollars are used to both fund Tor (via the State Department) and dismantle it (via the NSA, so far unsuccessfully)? Can we pretend any longer that current policies and practices are not riddled with fundamental contradictions? The longer we quarrel among ourselves over how to proceed, the longer we leave the door open for cartels to establish themselves in new digital terrain and for society to lose its modern building blocks of democracy because they happen to be valuable for illicit means, too.

The world is changing faster than ever. If after 40 years we cannot gain ground on the drug war of the real world, what strategy would we need when the battlefield becomes virtual? And is that strategy worth its price? The humanitarian reasons offered by the panel may be the ultimate reason to reconsider current policy, but I believe the urgency was understated. As digital peer-to-peer drug distribution turns into cartel-to-user channels, the humanitarian case may grow even stronger.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2014. The Forum's Global Shapers community is a network of city-based hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievement and their drive to make a contribution to their communities. Read all the posts in the series here.