We Bought Ecstasy from the Silk Road with Imaginary Money

Ever want to buy weird, synthetic, mind-altering substances but didn't know if Andy, operating out of his mother’s basement, was selling you balloons of heroin instead of ketamine? Ever espouse the dangers of having a Federal Reserve and a bureaucracy oversee the value of, like, everything you own, man? Want to turn all your hard-earned cash into lots of bits and bytes on your computer?

Boy, do I have a website for you. It's called the Silk Road and has been variously described by NPR as "[the] Amazon.com of illegal drugs,"[1] by The Economist as "a sort of eBay for drugs hidden in a dark corner of the web," and by Gawker, disappointingly analogyless-ly, as "the underground website where you can buy any drug imaginable." Way to be creative, guys.

In reality, Silk Road does have more than just drugs. Like porn. And… uh. Actually that's pretty much it. It's mostly drugs.[2]OK, but first things first, finding and purchasing your drugs on the Silk Road is the biggest Pain In The Ass (PITA, feel free to confuse it with PETA) on the Internet.

STEP ONE:

Download TOR Browser. Totally painless if you're under the age of 50 or so. And if you're over the age of 50, then dad, for your own sake, please stop reading this right now.

This ensures that all of your traffic is totally (well, almost totally) anonymous to the Internet At Large, which is perfect for when you don't want your Significant Other to find out about the gift you ordered for her on your shared computer. Just kidding no one uses TOR for that. Think more like hiring a hitman to kill your Significant Other or acquiring C.P. (don't ask, it's gross and derogatory and illegal and bad in a way that the rest of these things aren't) or, the reason we're all here, buying nauseating quantities of illegal, highly-restricted drugs from total strangers without the government or your friendly, neighborhood police officer/ school official finding out.

STEP TWO:

Find the URL. This is harder than you'd think, but for convenience's sake, your selfless author will give it to you right here (http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion).[3]

STEP THREE:

Create an account. Sorry for making this a step. I know you're not stupid and don't need to be walked through the process of making an account, I just felt like I needed to acknowledge that there is an account-making step you have to go through before stocking up on 10 kilos of PCP.

And, as for the website itself: imagine Amazon's page, logo in the top left corner, sidebar directly below that with different categories, account name, messages, funds, and orders to the right, and big, pretty pictures of shit for sale in the middle. Except instead of the familiar "Amazon" with an arrow swooping below the word (from A to Z, get it?) there's a green-tinted Arab on a camel next to "Silk Road: anonymous market." And instead of sidebar categories like "Books" and "Toys, Kids & Baby" you have "Erotica," "Opioids," "Precursors," "Drug paraphernalia," and "Biotic materials." And the "Biotic materials" category is particularly disappointing because it turns out the Silk Road is a terrible source for any number of biotic materials as the aforementioned category contains exclusively opium tea.

STEP FOUR:

Drugs.

BEFORE STEP FOUR BUT AFTER STEP THREE:

Sorry, again, before drugs you have to go back and actually, physically (digitally) buy some Bitcoins. This part is the big PITA of buying your drugs. Also the Bitcoin itself bears a little bit of cursory explanation.

CURSORY EXPLANATION:

Alright. Bitcoins are an imaginary currency, but they're just as imaginary—actually a good deal less imaginary—than the other currencies you'd consider to be "normal" and "real." Like the 300 baht you just got from an ATM (which listed your account balance in US dollars) in Bangkok to pay a very angry, “female”[4] prostitute. There are some very complicated computer algorithms involved in creating or "mining" these coins, but the important thing to realize is that they are tied to computer processing power and the specific algorithm that creates new Bitcoins, just like how the US dollar used to be tied to physical gold reserves. After 21 million Bitcoins are created[5] then the algorithm will be unable to produce any more (i.e. there is a limited supply). So the currency is 1) scarce, 2) totally decentralized and outside of the control of any government or individual, like, anywhere, and 3) almost entirely useless at this point, except for buying things like guns-sans-serial numbers, hitmen-for-hire, and drugs.[6]

But they're also an investment, the same way that any currency can be an investment. Had you, before Jan 2013, decided to convert every penny in your bank account to Bitcoins, then you would have pretty much tripled the value of your money since then. You know those graphs of the housing bubble collapse from Oct 2006ish to Jan 2009? Flip one of those upside down and you have the Bitcoin growth in the last three months.

Why the explosion in value? It mostly goes back to the scarcity issue. So first of all you’re slowly getting more (legitimate) businesses who’re accepting Bitcoins. Which contributes a bit to people wanting them. But, more importantly, there’s a part of the transaction process that involves a third party “verifying” transactions.

And it used to be that just about anyone with a decent computer could set their laptop/ desktop to verify these transactions, picking up a nice processing fee out of the deal (a processing fee which is created by the algorithm, created from thin air, so neither end of the transaction has to pay a “tax”). But as the value of the Bitcoin has skyrocketed, the proliferation of specially-designed supercomputers verifying these transactions has created a veritable arms race to get these processing fees and (increasingly) make a pretty substantial amount of money off each one.

Some very smart people also think the whole Cyprus bailout situation caused a spike in value, because you can’t trust banks, man. Actually the idea of keeping your money in Bitcoins to avoid centralized government control is eerily similar to Crazy Uncle Glen telling millions of people watching FOX that they should go trade in their money for gold because gold isn’t linked to the government and will somehow hold intrinsic value (?) after the economy collapses (“Thanks, Obama!”). And the bailout scenario is probably true to some extent. But really, who knows how the economy works, anyway?

THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS:

Will Bitcoins change the world? No. Not in the foreseeable future. At this point they’re mostly a gimmick, albeit one of the cooler gimmicks to emerge in the last decade. The US dollar & Euro both have terrifying, immense power when it comes to this sort of thing, a power that a bunch of 1s and 0s are not soon likely to surpass.

Actually, the only conceivable scenario that could give Bitcoins the necessary push to become a truly global and “legitimate” currency involves OPEC deciding to buy & sell in Bitcoins instead of the US Dollar. Which would a) Royally Piss Off the US Government because oil prices are positively linked to the value of the dollar, and b) pretty much never happen because the risk of point a) leading to some big-time negative consequences for OPEC member-nations is, uh, substantial.

But the emergence of the Bitcoin reflects an underlying shift in the landscape of the Internet. Not to sound too nostalgic, but there was a time when just about anyone could go online and post sickening, depraved shit just about anywhere they wanted without the risk of employers, children, spouses, colleges, or really anyone finding out. The pre-Google, pre-Facebook Internet was a deeply weird place.

So maybe Bitcoins & the Silk Road & TOR & even the now-ubiquitous “Private” mode in web browsers reflect something bigger. People want access to literally inconceivable quantities of data, but no one wants their own data accessible to others. Because computers automatically sharing an unedited, unperformed version of you is terrifying and horrible and anxiety-inducing for anyone with even a scrap of self-awareness.[7]

OK, sorry about that. Hopefully the Internet & computers & macroeconomics & public-key Bitcoin generation algorithms make sense now. Cool.

BACK TO STEP FOUR:

Anyway, yeah, you buy Bitcoins through any number of websites and store the "money" on your computer in a digital "wallet." And lots of stuff happens behind the scenes that's all quite complicated and you don't need to know about it for our purposes. But hey, if you bought one Bitcoin then you just managed to make $100 disappear! Now you've got a bunch of 1s and 0s on your computer and that $100 is lost forever!

STEP FIVE:

Now you order your drugs. Look for popular sellers on the Silk Road, find whatever it is you're trying to procure, pay the supplier with your newly-purchased Bitcoins, and wait 2-28 days for the drugs to be delivered.

And so anyway that's how I managed to come by two, 100mg tablets of 84% purity Ecstasy in tablet form.

The tablets arrived to a mailbox in a small, nondescript letter envelope from somewhere in California. Four days elapsed between order placement and delivery. The envelope contained a ziplock baggie roughly 3" tall x 2" wide, which in turn contained the Advil-sized, puke-green, round pills capable of making physical contact stimulating beyond belief while (rather cruelly) killing any chance at sexual arousal in most men who ingest it.

TO CONCLUDE:

I ordered a Schedule I substance from the Internet with a largely fictional currency. The D.E.A. and Federal Reserve have yet to come after me. All in all this is some next-level Jetsons family shit. The future is here.

 

[1] Between NPR Music naming obscure Bay-area rapper The Coup's newest album as one of the best of 2012 and this story about the Silk Road, I'm starting to suspect that public radio is cooler than I am.

[2] Just a disclaimer, as we should probably get this over with now, I strongly dislike the idea of you doing drugs. No, I know, sweetie, you're always safe, and you always take them in a supporting environment with people who care about you, but you just never really know what some sick-o could have put in your amphetamines or deliriants or dissociatives or LSD or MDMA or DXM or 2CE or PCP. Actually if you CHOOSE to take PCP then godblessya, it doesn't even matter what else happens to be in it because you're really just trying to have a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, aren't you?

[3] Don't do drugs.

[4] The adam’s apple & size 13 stilettos should’ve been a dead giveaway.

[5] Estimated to happen in the year 2140.

[6] So many drugs.

[7] Stop reading this and go look at your MySpace page from 2005. Just take a minute to reflect on the experience. Appreciate how much you hate the you from eight years ago. Realize why (insert name) never called you back. Cry a little. Sorry for reminding you how insufferable you used to be.