Silk Road, Part Two: Ross Ulbricht vs. The World

Editor’s Note: Today guest blogger Depaulo Vincent Bariuan completes his two-part series on Silk Road, the online drug emporium just recently taken down by federal authorities. Part One focused on the website’s relationship to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and its users’ efforts to evade government oversight. Today’s entry looks at the online life of Silk Road’s alleged founder, Ross Ulbricht, and asks how a young Ron Paulian might have conceived of online drug sales as an experiment in free-market utopianism.

Despite not knowing much about the anonymous online drug-trafficking website Silk Road beyond what news agencies and blogs have been reporting, the public has quite a bit of knowledge on its owner/orchestrator, 29-year-old entrepreneur Ross William Ulbricht. Operating his website out of what NPR called a “modest” $1,000/month room in San Fransisco, not even those close to him knew what he was doing. He lived with two roommates who only knew him as “Josh,” and reported that Ulbricht mostly kept to his room. His parents claimed ignorance of his online empire, but also remarked that he was “stellar, good person” and “very idealistic.”

In an interview on December 6 of last year, StoryCorp correspondent — and Ulbricht’s best friend — Rene Pinnell asked him about where he wished to be in 20 years. He responded: “I want to have had a substantial positive impact on the future of humanity by that time.”

What we know about Ross Ulbricht is due to the fact that he, much like any other person of his generation, had a substantial digital footprint. His name appears in many places all over social media, and with it many tidbits of the idealism his mother described.

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Silk Road, Part 1: The United States vs. the Internet

Editor’s Note: Points readers have no doubt followed the story of Silk Road with some interest, given its role in establishing a new paradigm in drug distribution. Today guest blogger Depaulo Vincent Bariuan begins a two-part series on Silk Road by explaining the now-defunct website’s relationship to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, suggesting that we look at Silk Road’s fate not only in terms of drug law but also as a key site in the government’s efforts to exert more control over life online. Vincent has a B.A. in Asian Studies from Florida State and an M.A. in Film Studies from Columbia, where his scholarship focused on new media. Since graduating, he’s worked in the video game industry.

On July 12, 2012, the Australian Federal Police raided the home of Melbourne resident Paul Leslie Howard. Tipped off by the 46.9 grams of MDMA and 14.5 grams of cocaine mailed to his residence over the course of 2 months, the police also recovered the following in the bust: marijuana, digital scales, clip seal bags, $2300 in cash, a money counter, and 35 stun guns disguised as mobile phones. But this wasn’t an ordinary drug bust – Howard wasn’t connected to any widespread drug syndicate. Most of his product was sent not from any nefarious location but from various households in the Netherlands. In fact, all of his drugs were acquired on the internet through a website called Silk Road. Taken down by the federal authorities this past October, Silk Road had become known as the internet’s one stop shop for any imaginable recreational drug.

Giving the people what they want.
Giving the people what they want.

Much of what people have learned about Silk Road since its takedown comes from the accounts journalists and bloggers have written about the website.

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Fiction Points: Dan Barden

Dan Barden is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Butler University in Indiana. His essays have appeared in Esquire, GQ, Details, and Poets and Writers, among other journals and anthologies. He is the author of the novels John Wayne: A Novel (Doubleday, 1997) and The Next Right Thing (Dial Press, 2012). The latter is a crime mystery set inside a recovery story, told by a hardboiled ex-cop for the ages. Check out the novel’s page for a glimpse of the rave reviews it received in all the right places, from The Atlantic to He speaks to us today about the human beings who inspired it. 

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them that you’re a writer. When they ask you what your last book was about, how do you answer?

I’d like to think I’d have a different answer for the nuns than I did for the penguin. To the nuns, I would say that I was trying to justify the ways of God to man insofar as the book — The Next Right Thing, which is a literary crime novel set among a community of AA members — is about what I find beautiful and honorable and appealing in the lives of men and women who are recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Dan Barden (© Liz Pinnick)
Dan Barden (© Liz Pinnick)

Why would God do this to these folks? Why would He vex them so much with these intractable emotional and spiritual problems? And then make them so charming and wonderful on top of all those vexing and intractable problems? To the penguin, I would say that the book is about how strangely human beings are to love each other in the strange ways that they love each other.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about The Next Right Thing?

I hope that The Next Right Thing is a novel about the beauty of codependence, if such a thing is even possible. I guess I wasn’t kidding when I just said that thing about “justifying the ways of God to man.” It really bewilders me that I have spent so much of my life loving alcoholics and addicts.

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Introducing the Fiction Points Interviews

Editor’s note: In recent weeks Points contributing editor and media liaison Amy Long has secured interviews with a host of leading contemporary fiction writers about the role of alcohol, drugs, and addiction in their work. The resulting interview series, which we’ve christened “Fiction Points,” will run weekly, beginning tomorrow with Eleanor Henderson. Today Long and Points editor Eoin Cannon introduce the series by discussing the relevance of fiction to drug history and the importance of drugs to the current state of fiction. 

View the entire series here or use the links at the end of this post to navigate to a specific interview.

"In the Court," Luke Fildes' illustration of the opium den in Charles Dickens's "The mystery of Edwin Drood" (1870).
“In the Court,” Luke Fildes’ frontispiece to Charles Dickens’s unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), depicting a scene thought to be based on Dickens’s police-accompanied visits to real East End opium dens.

EC: Fiction plays a unique set of roles for those seeking to understand the nature and meaning of drugs in history. Some survey it for depictions of the social realities of drugs’ procurement and use in a given time and place—data to join that of letters, newspaper reports, and medical treatises. Fictional representations are invented, of course, but they can be traced to real-life models, and in proper context can make vivid the phenomena under research.

Others look to literature for a rarer kind of access to the subjective experience of a drug’s effects and social meanings—a narrower view, because particular to the writer’s identity, style, and ability, but a deeper one. This depth comes not just in the sense of submerged mental experience, but in the possibility of foundational insight, the kind that can shape the very questions we ask about drugs in history.

Hallucinations as history--Leon Masson's 1920 illustration for a French translation of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821).
Hallucinations: non-realities that really happened. A 1920 Leon Masson illustration for a French translation of Thomas de Quincey’s nonfictional Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821).

Drugs are threads in the social fabric, but they are threads that tend to tell us something significant about the pattern of that fabric beyond their own limited place in it. Drug use facilitates a wide variety of social behaviors (both mundane and unusual) and it defines the nature of ordinary versus altered consciousness. When authors depict drug use they limn simultaneously the structures of outer social order and inner mental life. Far from being the “escape” they provide for some characters, drugs tend to drive stories themselves toward the heart of things.

Consider how Edith Wharton uses drugs to render the plight of her character Lily Bart, in a brief scene toward the end of The House of Mirth (1905).

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Shroomer Publications

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager, Gretchen Wade, and Judith Warnement of Harvard’s Botany Libraries for contributing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

What to do if you are looking for the “ultimate guide for safe mushroom picking”? Frank and Cheeri Rinaldo had the answer in 1979 with Safe-pik, a flip book of handy mushroom identification cards featuring photographs by John W. Allen. Measuring only about 2 1/2 by 4 inches it could easily fit in your pocket and deals mainly with Psilocybins, the type of mushrooms that contain a naturally occurring psychedelic compound. There is a helpful disclaimer that children should not take mushrooms, one should never trespass, and that mushrooms should be used for the purpose they were intended … mind expansion.

Safe-pik mushroom identification cards / [Frank & Cheeri Rinaldo; photographs by John Allen]. [Seattle?]: Shroomer Publications, c1979.
Visual identification of mushrooms is hardly a new concept, as seen by the German publication Naturgeschichte des Pflanzenreiches in Bildern by Dr. Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert.

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Drugs and the Military

Editor’s note: As a law professor, Buford Terrell specialized in controlled substances law. He now hosts a public interest television program in Houston called Drugs, Crime, and Politics, produced by the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, and publishes a blog called Marijuana Musings and Drug Law Diversions. We cross-post this recent entry of his because it surveys the use of drugs by American personnel in various armed conflicts, with the aim of generating interest in the topic among students and historians.

This piece is a confession of ignorance. I’m going to tell you what I don’t know about drug use in the military in hopes I can attract the eye of some historian eager to spend a little time – perhaps a few decades – excavating through musty warehouses crammed with military records.

The ignorance I am talking about here is about how much drug use has taken place in the American military and what effect, if any, that use has had on military structure, discipline, and effectiveness. While I am woefully ignorant, I have found some clues indicating that more knowledge about those questions is available and can be discovered.  These clues are tantalizing and I’ll share them with you in hopes that you can add to them or share them with a historian who may want to do the work. I’ve arranged these clues by the major military engagements the U. S. has had, beginning with the Civil War.

Civil War: Many people know that after the Civil War, opiate dependency was known as the “Old Soldier’s Disease,” but most of these addictions probably came from treatments for intractable and neuropathic pain incurred after the patients had left the army. At least one report has surfaced of a Union officer who made his troops drink a daily dose of opium to prevent dysentery.

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Higher Ed in the Halfway House

recent article from Stanford University’s in-house news service highlights a continuing ed program that has made humanities coursework an aid to both addiction recovery and the broader social stability needed to sustain it. The Hope House Scholars Program was founded in 2001 by Stanford philosophy profs Debra Satz and Rob Reich, who were inspired by the Clemente Course in the Humanities program founded by Earl Shorris in 1995. Each term, two Stanford profs team up to teach a course to the residents of Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for women, many of whom have recently been released from prison. The courses focus on themes including ethics, social justice, and moral responsibility. Each of the roughly 16 graduates per term receives college credit and a voucher for another continuing ed course. Corrie Goldman reports:

Wende C. is a grandmother who worked in banking for 27 years. She is also a crack addict who checked herself into Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in Redwood City, Calif., so she could learn the skills she needs to recover from her addiction.

As a resident in the all-female facility, she participated in group and individual therapy sessions, and health and nutrition seminars. She also attended a weekly humanities course.

Each session focused on one historical female figure, including medieval philosopher Hildegard of Bingen, poet Emily Dickinson, African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

At first, Wende wondered about the merit of studying “old and dead people,” but she said that learning about influential women made her feel “empowered” and helped her realize that it’s “OK for women to take a stand.”

One of the reasons I find this kind of program fascinating is the way it interacts with the humanist traditions built into the various mutual-aid and talk therapies used in recovery facilities and beyond.

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The Tobacco Census v. “Ffrauds and Mischiefs”

Editor’s Note: Featured is another installment in our occasional series of fascinating cross-postings from the blogs published by various libraries and archives. Today’s post comes from Out of the Box: Notes from the Archives @ The Library of Virginia, and was authored by Sarah Nerney, senior local records archivist. 

Virginia’s agricultural production, as well as its economy, was dominated by tobacco for over three centuries, ever since John Rolfe sent his first shipment of tobacco to England in 1614. Growth of the Virginia colony and extension into the interior meant more soil and larger crops of tobacco. Despite the continuous growth in production, the tobacco trade was plagued by falling prices and decreased quality. By the 1720s, tobacco exports included large quantities of inferior product that even included shipments of “trash” tobacco—shipments that diluted tobacco leaves with foreign substances such as household sweepings. Consequently the price of tobacco sank so low that many planters struggled to recover production costs.

Tobacco growing in the streets of Jamestown. From Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans (1960). Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.
Tobacco growing in the streets of Jamestown. From Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans (1960). Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.

In 1723 Virginia’s General Assembly passed the first of its Tobacco Acts that attempted to control the quantity and quality of tobacco grown in the colony because it was believed that “most of the ffrauds [sic] and mischiefs which have been complained of in the Tobacco Trade” had arisen from the “planting on land not proper for producing good Tobacco” and the production of “greater Crops than the persons employed therein are able duly to tend.” The 1723 act established limits on the number of plants that certain classes of persons could grow with slave owners being allowed fewer plants. Each vestry of every parish had to appoint two people every year to count the number of plants being grown and report the numbers to the clerk of court by the month of August. Any number of plants over the allowed number were to be destroyed by the planter or, if the planter would not, by the counters. The act of 1729 provided various adjustments to and elaborations on the 1723 act. (For full text of the acts see The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 20, pp. 158-178.)

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