While Others Go Free, Ross Ulbricht Faces Excessive Prison Time
This is an opinion editorial by Peter McCormack, a podcaster and filmmaker, the host of “What Bitcoin Did” and chairman of Real Bedford FC.
Over seven years ago, Ross Ulbricht was handed a double life sentence plus 40 years, without the possibility of parole. The U.S. government wants him to die in prison. The justification for such a sentence asks big questions of both the morality of the laws he was sentenced under and the judicial framework which allows for what is essentially a death sentence.
The story of Ulbricht, Silk Road, the investigation and his resultant sentencing is subjective. To some, it was an audacious and brave test of libertarianism within a system that is openly antagonistic to such actions. To others, it was the rightful incarceration of a drug dealer who caused intolerable harm. In addition, Ulbricht’s story includes accusations of assassination attempts, questions regarding the constitutional aspects of the investigation, corruption within the police, the emergent need to protect online privacy and, of course, bitcoin.
Most of the debate around Silk Road has rightly focused on whether the net societal impacts of providing a fully unregulated marketplace are positive or negative. It is the personal story behind the headlines that resonates with me, given that I’m in the same peer group as Ulbricht, share similar outlooks and interests and was an occasional user of Silk Road in its early days. That is the prism through which my views have been molded. However, while I have strong opinions, I don’t feel as though I have a morally superior view. There are plenty of people who have very troubling personal experiences, which means they will come to different conclusions about Ulbricht than I have.
Ulbricht’s punishment was related directly to the nonviolent activities associated with running Silk Road, namely: distributing narcotics, distributing narcotics by means of the internet, conspiring to distribute narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiring to commit computer hacking, conspiring to traffic in false identity documents and conspiring to commit money laundering. It is the consideration of these acts on which my opinions of Ulbricht’s case rest.
Ulbricht is a young, well-educated, articulate man who has outstanding entrepreneurial skills and who harnessed the capacity of various technical innovations to bring something new to the world. The consideration by Trump in 2020 to pardon Ulbricht drew particular criticism. Nick Bilton, who wrote a book about Ulbricht’s case, stated in a 2020 Vanity Fair article, “I find it reprehensible that people on social media are so adamant that Ulbricht should be freed because he performed his crimes from behind a computer.”
Bilton’s argument was that there are currently half a million U.S. citizens incarcerated for drug offenses, with numerous examples of extensive life-changing sentences for much lesser crimes than those of Ulbricht. This calls into question how unfairly the current war on drugs targets certain social groups, which is an argument I would confidently assume the majority of Ulbricht’s backers would agree with. Ulbricht’s case is emblematic of the systemic failure of the war on drugs; it is not an outlier whose publicity and narrative are questionable because of relative privilege.
More importantly, Ulbricht has not looked to be treated differently by the justice system. Yes, his legal team put up a range of defenses to support his case, as is his right. Yet, once the judgment was made, Ulbricht accepted his mistakes as well as his need to be held accountable. At his original trial in 2015, prior to sentencing, Ulbricht heard the testimony from some of the parents of six victims identified to have died after consuming drugs bought via Silk Road. After hearing this, Ulbricht stated, “I never wanted that to happen. I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path.” Then, prior to sentencing, Ulbricht begged the judge, “I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age. Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself before I meet my maker.” He was 31 at the time.
While Ulbricht admitted his guilt and culpability, it is still worth considering whether sending people to jail indefinitely for providing access to drugs is a reasonable action in a civilized society. Again, there are multiple angles to this issue and both sides of the argument have merit. Drug abuse is a massive societal issue with many tragic victims. It is hard to maintain a pro-drug stance if you have witnessed the impact on places like Los Angeles’ Skid Row, San Francisco’s Tenderloin area or Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.
But there is another side to this debate that does merit discussion. Essentially, should human beings be banned from ingesting substances because of the societal harm that can be inflicted? We allow access to alcohol which, when abused, is arguably one of the most destructive drugs in the world. We also embrace drugs for an increasing range of medical conditions: Over 20,000 drugs are approved for prescription in the U.S. and are used by 66% of citizens, most of whom are seeking to reduce blood pressure, relieve pain or mitigate mental health issues. These drugs too can be abused and lead to widespread societal harm, something I’ll touch on later. To some, the banning of certain classes of drugs for recreational or medicinal purposes is an arbitrary decision based on prejudice, ignorance and attitudes rooted in political and religious dogma.
Silk Road was first and foremost a platform for those wishing to take drugs recreationally. As I have documented in previous interviews, I used Silk Road directly for personal use. Silk Road enabled me to get easier access to my drug of choice. I abused that opportunity, and there are numerous stories of lives ruined by such activity. However, I also benefited from accessing the online community within Silk Road that provided open discussion forums predicated on supporting those struggling with addiction. That’s not to say that the Silk Road was an attempt to help people get off drugs, but neither was it a community looking to ruthlessly exploit those suffering from addiction without any concern for their well-being.
I also benefited from the measures Silk Road implemented to improve quality control. It is a known problem that an underground drug trade facilitates unscrupulous behavior where dealers seek to maximize returns by adulterating the product. This results in bad experiences, illness and even death. Such practices are widespread. In 2004, an assessment of ecstasy tablets from drug seizures in the 1990s found that up to 20% of the pills contained no MDMA, but were instead comprised of caffeine, ephedrine, ketamine, paracetamol or placebo. In 2018, 150 people in Illinois presented themselves to hospitals because they were bleeding uncontrollably after using synthetic cannabis-based products that contained rat poison. In 2021, three comedians famously died in LA after taking cocaine laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl is turning up in all kinds of drugs, which is contributing to U.S. annual overdose deaths exceeding 100,000 for the first time in 2021 — a five-fold increase since 2000; that’s one person dying of an overdose in the U.S. every 5 minutes. A medical toxicologist writing for The Conversation stated, “Buying drugs on the street is a game of Russian roulette. From Xanax to cocaine, drugs or counterfeit pills purchased in nonmedical settings may contain life-threatening amounts of fentanyl.” Fentanyl is “used as an adulterant because its high potency allows dealers to traffic smaller quantities but maintain the drug effects buyers expect.”
Silk Road, through its user-review system that sought to mimic legal retail sites, gamified the supply of drugs to reward those providing better-quality products. It was by no means a guarantee of minimum quality nor, obviously, could it be described as a safety feature, but it was mitigation for an issue that is causing unknown harm. Professor C. Michael White of the University of Connecticut studied this activity and reported on it in 2021, coming to similar conclusions to other medical experts, “The research is clear: Adding impurities to, or adulterating, illicit drugs is a longstanding and widespread practice with harmful consequences … the difference between what you believe you are buying and what is actually in the product can be the difference between life and death.”
Then there is the fact the vendor and buyer are physically separated. While trying to avoid cliches, those seeking drugs are more likely to be vulnerable people, while those selling drugs are more likely to be associated with other crimes and have violent tendencies. Having drug transactions forced underground means that vendors are forced to interact with buyers. This opens up all manor of risks, directly related to the interaction and indirectly to the locations where such interactions take place. There are short-term risks associated with specific transactions and longer-term risks associated with exploitative relationships that can develop. Silk Road broke this link. The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit organization, stated that Silk Road was safer than the streets for buyers and sellers. In a 2015 article, they asserted that Silk Road “gave us a new way to imagine better management of the drug trade … We need something better than what we have now, which is nothing but failure, cartels and beheadings, mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, a vibrant and throbbing illicit market, and a prison industrial complex totally out of control.”
An important (albeit potentially small) cohort of those who used Silk Road did so to gain access to drugs for medicinal purposes. While Ulbricht was not explicitly motivated to meet the specific needs of those failed by conventional health care, this is an important factor to account for, and again, something for which I used Silk Road. There are clearly valid concerns regarding the risks of people self-medicating. Nevertheless, there is also a critical need to respect the needs of those suffering from illnesses seeking treatments outside of official medicinal practices. There are those facing the worst challenges in life, desperate to relieve chronic pain, extreme mental anguish or even people facing death. If these people want to seek drugs that are not available to them through official means, is it right that society denies them this choice?
While it is true that prescribed drugs are subject to strict clinical trials, there are also valid concerns that other drugs — which have equally powerful medicinal, therapeutic and life-affirming effects — have been arbitrarily prohibited. This includes…
Read More: While Others Go Free, Ross Ulbricht Faces Excessive Prison Time
Disclaimer:The information provided on this website does not constitute investment advice, financial advice, trading advice, or any other sort of advice and you should not treat any of the website’s content as such. NewsOfBitcoin.com does not recommend that any cryptocurrency should be bought, sold, or held by you. Do conduct your own due diligence and consult your financial advisor before making any investment decisions.