Photo by Rick
,  December 9, 2014

Get Up, Light Up (Get Rich)

Photo by Rick
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There are celebrity sell-outs in every business—even the drug business. Fans of the world’s most famous reggae icon—once thought to be the herald of a spiritual revolution—might be taken aback to soon find his face smiling up from the packaging of the new “Marley Natural” boutique cannabis brand (complete with creams and accessories).

Following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, business is looking swift. Denver’s “green mile” is already packed with dispensaries and hundreds of start-ups are appearing around Colorado—from marijuana taxis to “Air THC” pot-friendly ski chalets and cannabis wedding bouquets—in a market forecast to be worth tens of billions.

Legalization may be a victory for liberal common sense, a tentative exit from the disastrous War on Drugs, but it’s also a potentially lucrative investment opportunity (even if trepidation amongst the banks and strict local regulation means the pot-fuelled gold rush still retains a small-entrepreneur feel). Business, as we know, knows no bounds–and the free trade school has long been toying with the idea of a “Marlboro of marijuana” a category-killer that would corner the cannabis market. As far back as 1969, Phillip Morris wrote to the Justice Department requesting a sample of marijuana for testing, while another giant British American Tobacco contemplated a “cannabis-loaded cigarette” the following year. For all the family values business rhetoric on the right, selling drugs–like guns, arms, or indeed cigarettes to kids–is a business like any other.

And to witness just how business-as-usual this all is, just look online, where a newly resurgent Dark Net drug scene has rapidly spawned a network of booming crypto-markets. Despite the closure of Silk Road in 2013, Agora, Evolution, Hydra, Pandora, Outlaw Market, and Silk Road 2.0 live on. Accessible only by encrypted Tor browsers, these markets offer a new wild west “eBay of drugs,” a narco-commerce with no regulation, identities or geographical centers. And so what do we find herein? Narco-cartels? Drug barons? Death squads?

Actually, no–but we do find impeccable retail marketing. “There are customer service buttons and shopping trolley carts and free-package-and-delivery and one-off specials,” writes The Dark Net author Jamie Bartlett, who sampled some of the wares (which are both ordered and mailed anonymously). Two-for-one offers, loyalty discounts and special promotional campaigns are common, such as on “Smoke Weed Day.” Some sites publish corporate-style mission statements, terms and conditions, and money-back guarantees. Trust is established via five-star Amazon-style ratings for all products, and both vendors and customers rate and comment on transactions. All in all, shopping for MDMA feels just like buying a DVD on eBay. In the words of cyber-criminologist James Martin, who has even found offers for “fair-trade cocaine” and “conflict-free” opium on the Deep Web: “It has become so prosaic it could be shoes.”

Should we really be surprised? After all, free market capitalism is value-free; a commodity is a commodity, be it nuclear weapons, shoes or high purity cocaine. Though the conservative right still tends to oppose any substance stronger than marijuana, the lawless mega-trafficking represented by Silk Road 2.0 is actually the perfect realization of its ideals—frictionless commerce, zero customer switching costs, and total seller transparency. This new criminal turbo-capitalism may even offset today’s hugely powerful international drug markets, making the street dealer a thing of the past as “dark commerce” expands. For all its associations with murder and terrorism, this, rather than NAFTA, is what free trade really looks like.

Perhaps it’s all rather inevitable. When society makes market values the only values, who can object to them being adopted by the shadow economy as well as legitimate business? Street heroin dealers in New York brand their drug packaging to win customer loyalty (tantalizing logos include “Kiss of Death” and “Undertaker”). Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh famously showed how drugs gangs operate like fast-food franchises, with zero worker protection, strict hierarchies, and dismal pay for the rank and file.

The mechanics of the market apply whether you’re selling coke, or selling Coke. As former addict Graham MacIndoe wrote about the dealers he used to buy from: “Dope dealers are peddling a dream just like the manufacturers of a new smart phone. It’s just capitalism in the end.”

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