Tag Archives: drugs

Silk Road’s Closure – The Latest Depressing Chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ Epic

Recently, the powers that be flexed their muscles and shut down the online black market the ‘Silk Road’. Its alleged founder Ross William Ulbricht aka the online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested earlier this month and faces some hefty charges against his name including drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking and money laundering. Silk Road has been around for over two years but it has only really been getting mainstream news attention for the past month or so. Following this spike in interest, Silk Road and the technology associated is getting a bad rep and an unfairly negative image due to misinformation and fear mongering. As well as this, its closure marks another depressing chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ epic that keeps getting longer and keeps making less sense as it goes along.

Silk Road was most notorious for being a marketplace for those wanting to do their illegal narcotics shopping from the safety and comfort of their own home instead of having to venture to the wrong side of the tracks. It was the black-market-Amazon; you could get what you wanted when you wanted it, delivered straight to your door. It featured an eBay style interface of buyers and sellers with their own individual feedback ratings, so that you could be rest assured whatever narcotics you purchased would be better and safer than whatever that guy that always wears a North Face jacket and apparently never sleeps was selling in your local area.

Items listed on Silk Road were not limited to just drugs and included books, clothes, computer equipment, collectables, fireworks and forged documents but the vast majority of items were of the illegal nature. As it was illegal goods that most people searching down the Silk Road were after, the website was hidden away as part of the ‘deep web’ with the only way to access it being through anonymous browsing clients and the only way to purchase items being crypto-currency.

Media attention has broadly mentioned two legal technologies that are crucial for anyone’s journey down the Silk Road – Tor and Bitcoins. Tor is software that enables online anonymity by relaying online net traffic so that it is hidden away from the Internet’s many all-seeing eyes. Bitcoins are an open-source, peer-to-peer electronic currency purchased using traditional currencies and is free from a central issuing authority and transactions bypass financial institutions. The media’s spin on these innovations has largely been negative, with headlines along the lines of ‘look at all the real bad things this technology is being used for!’ – this smear is unfair and ill-informed. Tor and Bitcoins have more uses beyond shady transactions and they benefit millions around the world and the number of people using them both continues to grow.

The majority of the world doesn’t live in a position of freedom or privilege and Tor helps level the playing field. It allows users to communicate freely when in the web space of restrictive regimes, it can evade monitoring by those using 1984 as a guidebook and as well spread information to citizens that are otherwise restricted. The other key ingredient to the Silk Road experience is Bitcoins, an ever-growing crypto-currency. Bitcoins are popular as they are free from third-party mediators and domestic economic problems, which means that costs are kept down and transactions are easier to do and are more secure. They are being used to pay for all sorts of goods and services online with more retailers signing up to them by the day.

Aside from the misinformation about the technologies involved, the closing of Silk Road is just another chapter in the epic tome of the failed war on drugs – a costly war that has raged for over 40 years and has perpetuated many social ills that it apparently aims to prevent. There is a growing consensus around the world from medical experts, politicians and former legislators that the war on drugs is as useful as pissing into the wind. The deep web is vaster than the ocean floor and already other black markets are up and running, taking Silk Road’s place and evidencing the failings of current drug legislation. Drug dealing is a dangerous world because of its illegality; Silk Road created an environment that removed a lot of the potential high-risk perilous situations and scenarios associated with the drugs trade. The middleman was taken out, so was the shady back alley and the potentially hazardous batch. With Silk Road there was no threat of violence and little chance of being ripped off – when the US government shut down Silk Road it forced users back onto the streets and in to the criminal underworld.

Voices against current drugs legislation are growing louder and change could be soon around the corner; the closure of Silk Road is definitely something that more voices should shout louder about.

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Theresa May – Crazy khat lady?

Theresa May’s move to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’ flies in the face of common sense and has worrying implications.

Theresa May has gone against the advice of experts from the government’s own drugs Advisory Council (the ACMD) and on Wednesday announced plans to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’, which will soon be treated as a class C drug in the UK. Khat(or Qat) is a leaf that when chewed gives the user a buzz likened to the feeling of drinking numerous cups of coffee. A number of worrying issues arise in relation to this new legislation.

The first issue at hand is the government’s constant disdain for the advice it receives regarding drug legislation. The ACMD was set up to provide expert advice to legislators, so that informed decisions could be made regarding drug laws.

In a report published in January, the ACMD said khat should remain a legal substance stating that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the drug causes health problems. However the Home Secretary has ignored this advice and has set the wheels in motion to make the drug illegal.

Since 2010 the Conservative led government has ignored fact-based advice regarding drug legislation on numerous occasions. When the ACMD advised that cannabis should remain a Class C substance, the government’s response was to reclassify it to Class B. A similar suggestion that Psilocybin (Magic) Mushrooms should also not be reclassified was also ignored. When the council suggested lowering the category of MDMA and also that more research should be conducted into Mephedrone before it is further criminalised, the government’s response was again to show contempt. Ecstasy was kept a Class A substance and Mephedrone was elevated to a Class B, before any extensive research was carried out.

This government prides itself on its credentials for clawing back the intrusive state it inherited from the last Labour government. However this latest disdain for the recommendations of the ACMD has an aura of nanny-statism and reeks of a ‘the government knows best’ attitude.

One of the reasons put forward by those wishing to make khat illegal is that trading of the drug has been dubiously linked to organised terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This line of reasoning has been ridiculed by the ACMD and history tells us that when something is criminalised, only organised criminals prosper under the legislation – see Al Capone during alcohol prohibition in the US, Pablo Escobar in Columbia during the failed ‘war on drugs’ and contemporary cartels that run amok in Mexico. This is the second problem with May’s actions; by making the drug illegal she is driving out legitimate businesses trading within the law, and instead creating an environment where only illegal dealers benefit with the added bonus of enhanced profits as the price of khat is set to rise.

In Britain the plant is chewed by around 90,000 people and the majority of its users are people with roots in East Africa – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most predominantly Somalis. The third underlying issue with the plans to ban khat is that the policy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and turn thousands of people into criminals overnight for using something that has been a staple part of their culture for hundreds of years.

A ban on khat would inflame already existing tensions between the ethnic diaspora and the police, as it will inevitably lead to more stop and searches of ethnic minorities. Ironically, earlier this week the Home Secretary boldly lamented current stop and search laws and called for an overhaul of police powers citing that they have been disproportionately used against black and minorities.  However this is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other as May happily enacts legislation that will target ethnic peoples. Banning khat will not have the intended purpose of stopping people from using the drug; it will just make innocent users criminals.

Making a herbal stimulant that is used by less than 0.2% of the population illegal appears on the surface to be no big deal. However, there are various reasons to be concerned. This is further evidence of the government displaying their contempt for fact-based evidence from the ACMD questioning the point of the council’s existence. Coinciding with this is an embracement of nanny statism, something the Conservatives have been happy to warn against in opposition. Finally the government is showing a worrying willingness to target an ethnic minority using very contestable reasoning.

The policy will only prove to do more harm than good: crazy khat, indeed!

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Young People Identifying more with Libertarian Positions?

There is arguably a much more sympathetic view amongst students towards state intervention to solve problems facing society. With this in mind I recently attended the recording of BBC 3’s current affairs program Free Speech in Liverpool.

The panel consisted of contemporary pop star Kate Nash, Conservative MP for Glamorgan Alun Cairns, Liverpool Council’s spokesperson for young people Stephanie Till and finally Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Viewers at home could interact by tweeting either #Yes or #No followed by a panelist’s name to cast their vote of approval or disapproval to what they were saying, the results of this represented on a ‘power bar’. By the end of the night, interestingly it was Sam that was the decisive winner.

The first question posed to the panel was, “Should the government subsidise housing payments for first time buyers?” Alun did argue for more liberal planning laws and less restrictions on banks lending money, however the crux of his argument was that the state should do more in terms of building affordable housing. He made the case for the government’s Social Housing Guarantee, to replace any sold off social houses in the hope of keeping housing affordable.

Stephanie championed Liverpool City Council’s policy of derelict properties being sold off for as little as £1 to developers to replenish the housing stock. As well, she promoted the Council’s scheme of providing money to first time buyers to underwrite mortgages. The consensus from the two was that the government should do more to solve the issue.

Sam offered an alternative to this narrative by focussing on freeing up the planning system, and as well making the case that a lack of supply could be solved through a market auctioning system, rejecting the use of the state as a solution to this problem. He added the point that government benefits have had the unintended consequence of acting as subsidy to landlords thus driving up the costs of housing and rent further, an argument not often found in mainstream politics. The audience liked what they heard and in contrast to the others, applauded Sam’s message.

When asked to respond to the British Medical Association’s proposed solution to the obesity crisis – a ‘fat tax’, Sam again rejected any state intervention on the matter. Citing results from Denmark and the US, he took apart the argument for ‘fat taxes’. Using evidence that shows the policy to be ineffective at curbing obesity and simply acts as a regressive tax, he argued that it is cheaper to eat healthily and ultimately it was down to individuals to control their diet.

The audience again approved this message, but what followed was a fruitless ill-informed  debate over the costs of food, highlighting the real fundamental problem at the heart of the obesity issue, a lack of education. The consensus amongst the audience agreed with Sam that a tax would not work, however the argument put forward by Stephanie to have subsidised healthier food also had approval. A score draw between the market and state intervention approach.

When the panel were asked, “Is drug addiction a medical or criminal issue?” Sam took the lead and argued that it is an addiction and to treat it as criminal is counterproductive. He reasoned, drug addictions tear individuals apart, and then the state escalates the problem by putting people that need help in to prisons, an environment in which their problem will only get worse.

Using Portugal to illustrate his point, a country that does treat it as a medical issue and has legalised drugs. Sam pointed out this has led to a decline in crime, addiction levels and health complications related to drugs. Current legislation means the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are criminal gangs just as they were in the age of prohibition.

Encouragingly, Sam received overwhelming approval for his argument and agreed that criminalisation is hurting those that need help. Stephanie’s rebuttal was incoherent and appeared out-dated. Wrongly stating that legalisation will lead to problems such as increased drug cutting and giving more power to dealers, which are already symptoms of the current legislation situation. Alun also appeared out of touch by trying to rationalise an addict’s behaviour so that it should be treated as criminal. This authoritarian position did not sit well with the audience.

The only answer from the panel that really addressed a concern expressed by many in the audience over funding for treatment was from Sam who argued with less money spent on imprisoning users, then more can be spent on rehabilitation. The power bar following this discussion showed that Sam was way ahead compared to his opponents.

Granted the topics discussed only scratched the surface of market solutions to society’s problems. It is fair to question if the audience and viewers responses would have been as approving if libertarian stances on the minimum wage, banker’s bonuses or welfare were discussed. It is hard to say, but if more people like Sam argued for the market in an articulate and reasoned manner backed up with evidence then minds can be changed.

The program format is no formal evidence and discussion fell victim like all shows of this type to at times populism, not helped by the anecdotal ramblings of Ms Nash. However it did display that the ideas put forward by Sam Bowman were as a whole being understood better and seen as more relevant to the young audience than the solutions put forward by the other members of the panel.

I never thought I’d sit in an audience of students and watch them clap hardest at free market individualism, this can only be an encouraging sign for supporters of greater individual liberty to solve the problems we face today.


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