With Ross Ulbricht sentenced to life in prison to make an example of him in the new online version of our nation’s drug wars, it raises a similar question to the one in the offline world: does this kind of thing have any impact at all? The Economist has a chart suggesting that nothing at all is changing and demand creates supply, as the number of drug listings in dark markets continue to grow, even as some of the players are shut down via law enforcement (Silk Road, Silk Road 2) or scams (Evolution):

Of course, there’s one caveat on this, which is that the data is from Digital Citizens Alliance, a known MPAA front, whose role is to undermine online internet markets of all kinds. But the general point shown in the chart is likely to be fairly accurate. As soon as one of these sites disappears, others quickly step in to fill the need. That’s generally how markets work. If there’s demand, supply will follow. In fact, data from other sources seems to support this basic point. Lots of these markets close (and very few of their operators are ever arrested), but plenty more step in to fill the void.

And, of course, the standard response to all of this is that law enforcement has to keep playing this game of whacking moles because they’d like to think that this at least puts some sort of limit on the activity by making it marginally more “expensive” for suppliers in terms of risk. Still, it seems like lots of other things online, this law enforcement/mole whacking approach isn’t particularly productive, and only serves to make the issue more diverse, more underground, less regulated and less safe.

Perhaps, rather than continue down that path, it’s time to look at alternative approaches.

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