For nearly an hour before sentencing Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht to life in prison, Judge Katherine Forrest made a sweeping defense of United States drug laws, exhaustively rebuking the idea the online drug market resulted in any harm reduction and countering its supposed libertarian mission, according to a newly unsealed document.
“What Silk Road really was was a social market expander of a socially harmful drug that we have deemed in our democratic process to be unacceptable and it was an enabler of those trying so very hard to get away from it,” she said before sentencing Ulbricht on May 29.
Ulbricht’s defense had argued the site reduced harm because it kept drug deals off the streets and allowed users to share information about drug safety. The transcript from the final day of court proceedings shows how Forrest categorically rejected that claim, outlining the social costs of drug use from an individual level to mass scale.
“The social costs of drugs are manifest,” she said. “The user is only one part of the equation, that is where much of this harm reduction argument comes from and it is focused on the user. The user is one part of a massive, massive worldwide scheme of drug trafficking and if you sat where I sat you would see that the user is not the end… So, harm reduction focused on the user is missing the point.”
"What you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric."
Forrest resented the fact that Ulbricht was challenging US laws regarding drug sales and distribution, saying “there is a way to change the law but it is not by doing what occurred.”
“No drug dealer from the Bronx selling meth or heroin or crack has ever made these kinds of arguments to the Court,” she said. “It is a privileged argument, it is an argument from one of privilege. You are no better a person than any other drug dealer and your education does not give you a special place of privilege in our criminal justice system. It makes it less explicable why you did what you did.”
She also denounced the ideals of Silk Road, saying Ulbricht’s creation of the site implied he thought he was above the law, an idea that is “troubling and terribly misguided and also very dangerous.” She said Silk Road was not the libertarian social experiment Ulbricht made it out to be.
“You were captain of the ship, as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and you made your own laws and you enforced those laws,” she said. “So, it wasn't a world without restriction. It wasn't a world of ultimate freedom. It was a world of laws that you created, they were your laws. It is fictional to think of Silk Road as some place of freedom.”
Of the many letters and documents the defense submitted regarding the potential harm reduction effects of Silk Road, Forrest was particularly disgusted with the letter filed by “DoctorX,” a trained physician who consulted users on Silk Road about responsible drug use. She cited his sale of expired fentanyl patches, a narcotic pain reliever, and his advice to a user who wanted to take MDMA to abandon his antidepressants beforehand.
“The Court notes that there is the presence of Dr. X, who deserves special mention in his particularly despicable that he has been pointed to as a big part of the harm reduction,” she said. “I have read each and every post of Dr. X and I was blown away and infuriated by it. It is absolutely clear that Dr. X is part of the problem, he is not part of the solution, and again it is magical thinking to think so.”
The transcript also includes Ulbricht’s final plea for leniency before he was sentenced. He broke down in tears as he apologized to the families of people who died from drugs purchased on Silk Road who spoke at the sentencing proceedings, and said he had gained a new respect for the law in his 20 months in prison at the time.
“One of the things I have realized about the law is that the laws of nature are much like the laws of man,” he said. “Gravity doesn't care if you agree with it––if you jump off a cliff you are still going to get hurt. And even though I didn't agree with the law, I still have been convicted of a crime and must be punished. I understand that now and I respect the law and the authority now.”
Forrest said she spent more than 100 hours contemplating the sentence before handing it down, and referenced the 98 letters sent to her by friends and family members of Ulbricht testifying to his character and peaceful demeanor.
“There is no reason to make a choice between these two people that I see that are on display––the Ulbricht who is the leader of the criminal enterprise and the Ulbricht who is known and loved,” she said. “What is clear is that people are very, very complex and you are one of them. They are made up of many different qualities and many characteristics with no one quality defining them. And there is good in Mr. Ulbricht, I have no doubt, but there is also bad, and what you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.”
Forrest said because the case was so widely publicized, a more severe sentence could deter similar crimes in the future. She sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison without parole for the combined counts of narcotics trafficking and distribution of narcotics by means of the internet. He was also given life without parole, to be served concurrently, for narcotics conspiracy. Then he was given five years for the count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and 10 years for conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent identification documents. For one count of money laundering conspiracy, he was given 20 years. He is currently appealing his sentence.
Read the full sentencing proceedings below: