The founder of Silk Road deserved a harsh sentence

Free Ross UlbrichtCriminals can like kittens, too.

Friday afternoon, a federal judge sentenced Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the online black market Silk Road, to life in prison. Technically, she gave him two life sentences.
“Silk Road was about creating demand and fulfilling demand,” the judge told Ulbricht at the sentencing. “You don’t fit the criminal profileā€¦ but you are a criminal.”

If you believe the world’s drug kingpins should rot in prison, you should believe the same of Ross Ulbricht.

The internet gives us a certain amount of detachment from our actions. But sitting behind a computer coding Silk Road? It’s not so different from overseeing a group of dealers standing on street corners around the country peddling heroin, coke, and meth.

This is how Nathaniel Popper, author of the bitcoin origin story book, Digital Gold, describes Ulbricht:

For Ross, a fun-loving, well-educated twenty-six-year-old, the creation of Silk Road had begun in earnest in July 2010 when he had sold a cheap house in Pennsylvania that he’d acquired while he was a graduate student there. With the $US30,000 from the sale, Ross rented a cabin about an hour from his home in Austin, Texas. He also purchased petri dishes, humidifiers, and thermometers, along with peat, verm, gypsum, and a copy of The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories, by Jack B. Nimble.

The psychedelic mushroom lab he set up in the cabin was not created with the intent of enabling Ross to become a petty drug dealer. He had much grander vision of his life than that. From the time he sold the house in Pennsylvania, he knew he wanted to set up a new kind of online market, where people could buy all the things that aren’t available on ordinary online markets.

Ulbricht may now regret what the way it turned out, but it’s pretty clear he knew what he was doing at the time. Just because Ulbricht matches the pattern of the successful entrepreneur doesn’t mean that he’s any less responsible for the massive wave of drug dealing that he enabled.

Ross UlbrichtAP Photo/Elizabeth WlliamsDefendant Ross William Ulbricht in NY courtroom photo

In his defence, his lawyers argued that Silk Road allowed for a much safer drug marketplace — there’s no need for guns when you’re buying and selling heroin though the mail. There might be some validity to that argument, except Silk Road also sold the services of assassins.

There’s also an argument that the people who bought drugs from Silk Road and subsequently overdosed, one of the reasons for Ulbricht’s harsh sentence, were going to score drugs no matter what. It’s not Ulbricht’s fault. It’s probably true. But by that logic, no individual ever accused of facilitating drug sales should be punished.

Drug sentencing in the United States is a broken system, and the punishment is too harsh. But if you think Ulbricht’s life sentence in particular is bullshit, just make sure you’re ready to make the argument for leniency for every other major drug trafficker on the planet.

Ross Ulbricht is smart and white and well-educated. He’s a coder and an entrepreneur. But none of those are good reasons that he shouldn’t be in prison.

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