Colombia Drugs

Few would say the FBI was doing something wrong by shutting down Silk Road's online black market, but new research suggests that there may have been a silver lining to the service's dark cloud. Researchers Judith Aldridge and David Decary-Hetu claim in a recent study that Silk Road was cutting back on violence. Since many of the sales were dealer-to-dealer rather than to customers, that supposedly reduced the chances for real-world confrontations -- you can't start a gun battle over prices when you're on the other side of the country.

There's some merit to the claims. Silk Road founder Dread Pirate Roberts designed his service in part to take away power from cartels, which regularly use violence to maintain their grip on the drug trade. An ordinary street dealer could avoid encountering cartels altogether while selling on a larger scale.

However, there are some holes in the study. For a start, it notes that most trades on Silk Road were focused on relatively soft drugs like ecstasy and pot. It doesn't account for violence over harder stuff like cocaine, where dependency and "chaotic" (that is, frequently criminal) lifestyles are larger factors. An addict can't wait for a mail order, for example, and many of the hardest drugs ultimately come from cartels and other criminal organizations. It's also difficult to know whether online transactions were replacing in-person sales or merely supplementing them. In some cases, Silk Road may have just been a way to clear out drugs that didn't sell at the street corner. You'll have to take the findings with a grain of salt, then, even if they do illustrate how criminals can change their behavior when they go digital.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara]