My Top Secret Meeting with One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords
Dread Pirate Roberts captained a ship that many thought was unsinkable. But when the FBI seized the original Silk Road on October 1, 2013 ,and arrested the alleged kingpin—29-year-old Ross Ulbricht—the online drugs empire began to capsize. Its hundreds of thousands of customers scattered across the Deep Web, and up to seven known Silk Road vendors were identified and arrested.
As the chaos unravelled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drugs syndicate sat in their European safe-house with a ton of opium and a decision to make—would they cut their losses and disappear into the ether while they were still ahead, or keep their lucrative online drugs network running in the midst of all this extra attention?
The displaced drugs syndicate, known on the Deep Web as the Scurvy Crew (TSC), decided to go back to work. For them, back to work meant laundering Bitcoins, vacuum packing drug parcels, and jumping the Moroccan border with bags stuffed full of uncut drugs. Silk Road may have died a sudden death at the hands of the authorities, but as one of the highest rated vendors before the FBI shut-down, the Scurvy Crew saw its demise as an opportunity to diversify.
After six months of negotiation, via encrypted email and several phone calls from throwaway SIM cards, the boss of the Scurvy Crew agreed to meet me. He told me he would explain to me the inner workings of his Deep Web drugs venture, from its humble beginnings to the near million-dollar profits it now apparently generates. Known to me only by the pseudonym “Ace,” the boss claimed to represent a new breed of drug dealer.
“I don’t do this just for the money,” he wrote to me via email. “I like to provide a premium service.”
Should everyone take acid?
No because you have to ask the right question to take it. Do you want a one-on-one with your maker?
And what if the answer is yes, even if you’ve got a mental illness?
Well there’s a correlation between acid and curing mental illness. I realized after my beautiful accidental rebirth that what we usually call psychology is actually just art.
You use a lot of complicated metaphors.
No, I just use the truth.
—Mark McCloud, the San Francisco man who has 30,000 tabs of LSD in his house, sounds exactly like you’d expect
The Kentucky Derby… on Acid!
This is my good friend Caitlin (whose name isn’t really Caitlin). That is a hit of acid on her tongue. She did acid once, four years ago, and she’s doing it again now, just before we head out to the Kentucky Derby, because the only way to attend the most famous horse race in the world—an event that features thousands of drunken gamblers, straight-up drunks, and a roiling, seersuckered mess of Southern gentry—is to trip your head off for the whole thing.
An hour later, we arrived at Churchill Downs, which was pretty miserable in the rain. As with every major public gathering in America, tons of cops and security guards were on hand at the entrance to direct foot traffic and remind us all that we live in a post-9/11 security state. I knew the acid was starting to kick in when she compared this routine checkpoint to being a Jew in Hitler’s Germany: “I swear we are in a concentration camp. Look at how they are herding everyone.” Is this how Alex Jones fans are made?
Our tickets were for the infield, the area surrounded by the racetrack that turns into a big muddy party for the duration—sort of like a music festival without music but worse, if you can picture that. This area is designated for those who don’t want to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a ticket, belligerent drunks, and 40-something divorcees trying to get freaky. It’s cheap because you can’t really tell what’s going on, horse-racing wise.
…But in order to reach the infield, we first had to fight our way through a tunnel that smelled like a rotting asshole—the air was filled with cigar and cigarette smoke, vomit, and bourbon. Caitlin asked me if we were in hell.
New York Fashion Week… on Acid!
This guy here is our buddy Tyler. And that white stuff on his tongue is partially chewed, acid-dosed Altoids mints.
This is him a little while later, waiting for a cab to take us to a fashion show that was happening as part of New York Fashion Week. At this point, Tyler told me that he was beginning to feel a “floaty floatiness” and had “upward swooshing” in his fingertips.
His trip began to kick in properly when he saw this building from the cab. Apparently it was “all swirly, with swirls swirling into the other swirls.”
The trip intensified when it was time for me to pay for our taxi, and it became apparent that our driver was unfamiliar with the concept of cabs.
As I was trying to pay him, he smiled at me and said “it’s free” before attempting to hand me a white business card with what appeared to be braille on it. When I insisted on paying, he just kept smiling and pointing toward my phone while saying, “No, no, no.”
This is the kind of bizarre exchange that only seems to happen when you’re too high to deal with it. Tyler was looking around nervously. When he saw the Matrix business card he started to cackle, before asking the cab driver, “What’s happening? Am I tripping?”
Eventually, the cab driver let me give him $15, and we headed to the show. It was held on this pier.
Outside the venue, there were a billion people rushing around. Mostly street-style photographers. You may already know this, but being in a crowd is pretty much the last thing you want to do when you’re on acid. Followed pretty closely by having your photo taken. Tyler looked as though he was beginning to panic. “Fucking street-fashion photographers… They’re everywhere… It’s like a street-style nightmare.” He said, before rushing us inside.
Super Bowl Media Day… on Acid!
My first decision was whether to take the five-dose strip of LSD before or after I arrived at the Superdome. I settled on doing it after, which turned out to be the right choice. The line for media to get into the stadium was hundreds of people long and zigged and zagged through the bowels of the Superdome garage in a way that made it impossible to tell how long it was and what was around the next corner. It just so happened that the end of this line had some bomb-sniffing dogs and fully armed military personnel. As I told my editor later, if I had eaten the acid before getting in line, this story would’ve ended when I saw the bomb-sniffing dogs. I would’ve high-tailed it out of there—probably screaming—and been eaten by those vicious animals.
Despite having worked as a full-time sports journalist in a past life, this was my first time at a Super Bowl Media Day. I was surprised to find that there was no workstation set up for me to drop off my stuff and get my bearings before sneaking into a darkened corner to take my drugs. Nevertheless, I still managed to take those drugs in a darkened corner—I could tell from experience that the bitter taste and tingling on my tongue was a good sign. I checked my watch: 9:30. The San Francisco 49ers would be on the field in half an hour for their stint with the media.
The acid first started creeping in while I was standing next to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I overheard someone ask Colin if he was a “steak and potatoes” kind of guy, and then I repeated “steak and potatoes” a few times into my iPod. I don’t think I attracted a great deal of attention, but I almost lost my shit when I noticed Kaepernick was getting beamed, God-like, onto the Superdome Jumbotron while I was standing mere feet away from him.
By this time, the trip was lapping against my mind in more consistent and powerful waves. I was very thankful that I had so many toys with me (my cameras, my iPod, and my smartphone) because fidgeting with my gear was a way to calm myself down. I’m not sure if this looked strange to anyone, but I’m also pretty sure I was staring at my camera without doing anything for what seemed like hours.
In reality, it couldn’t have been too long, because my next voice memo, recorded at 10:42, has me noting that the 49ers only had a few minutes left on the field and that I hadn’t asked any questions. Suddenly, I felt the urge to do something—everyone around me was moving with a purpose while I wandered around aimlessly and stared at the mysteriously pulsating artificial turf. I tried in vain to ask 49ers running back Frank Gore a question, but was beaten to the punch by a radio DJ who asked him if he’d ever had an imaginary girlfriend and some other guy who asked Gore, “If you had a Pegasus, what would you name it?” I made a voice memo wondering if I was imagining all of this.
You’ve probably heard a little bit about the top secret experiment the Army conducted during the Cold War. A room glowing flourescent blue, with an unwitting soldier seated in the middle. A doctor wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a cigarette walks in with a syringe. He mutters something softly as the needle goes into the soldier’s arm. Cut to the outside of the building and the sound of breaking glass, as the soldier’s body falls to the ground. (Pro tip: Stay away from windows when experimenting with LSD.) That’s what it’s like in the movies, anyway.
Turns out these experiments were worse in real life. Raffi Khatchadourian’s sprawling exposée on the Army’s psychochemical warfare program in this week’s New Yorker details the collective confusion and chaos that took hold of the armed forces as they imagined the worst during the Cold War. The program was underwritten by an utter disregard for human dignity and medical ethics: Many of the young soldiers who volunteered for the program weren’t told anything about the medical tests they would undergo at Edgwood Arsenal, the Army’s classified facility on the Chesapeke Bay. And many say they were scarred for life after what happened to them inside.
I was about an hour into my interview with Merry Prankster elder statesman Ken Babbs when he suddenly jumped up and announced that we needed to have an “outside adventure.” This sort of erratic suggestion would have been kind of weird and off-putting coming from anyone else. But for Babbs—the Merry Prankster who helped Ken Kesey teach the hippies how to be hippies—the impulsive and unexpected come naturally.
It’s been almost half a century since Babbs, Kesey, and the Pranksters painted technicolor murals across their 1939 Harvester school bus, stocked it full of acid, and drove from LA to New York’s 1964 World Fair—a trip that later inspired the Beatles to write The Magical Mystery Tour. The Pranksters and their driver, Neal Cassady, who was immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, went on to party with the Hell’s Angels, live side-by-side with the Grateful Dead, and host psychedelic sensory orgies called Acid Tests. Their exploits were captured in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Time has been good to Babbs. At 73, he still bursts with energy and ideas even if he no longer looks like the spry, DayGlo weirdo from Tom Wolfe’s book. These days, he dresses like a grandfather. When I met him, he had on a fedora, a button-up shirt, and loose-fitting stonewashed jeans. As he told it, the conservative clothes are Prankster tools of deception. They let him slip around unnoticed. But his tie-dye socks still peeked out from under his cuffs.
I visited Babbs at his home back in October. He lives on a few acres of land in the woods outside of Eugene, Oregon, with his wife in an eccentric barn-style house that he built himself. The place smells of old books and Triscuits and, of course, it didn’t have a normal bathroom. Instead, there were two stalls with multicolored seats sitting right in the living room. If someone had taken a shit, you would’ve seen their feet dangling from the dining room table. My hungover photographer, who desperately needed to drop some friends off at the pool, kept his cheeks clenched the whole time we were there.
Babbs has collected so much historical detritus from his life with the Pranksters he had to build ramshackle sheds around his property to house it all. He lead me to one of these sheds for our “outside adventure.” It hadn’t been opened for decades. There wasn’t even a door. When we took a screw gun to the shed’s wall and Babbs and I peered inside, I felt like Geraldo Rivera at Al Capone’s vault. Babbs dove in and started tossing out DayGlo toilet seats, psychedelic piano keyboards, and handfuls of tie-dye trinkets. He riffed on each item we dug up except for the giant “WHUMP!” banner. He let that one speak for itself.
Basically, Babbs lives in a museum. It’s funny that the guy who always played the lighthearted counterweight to Kesey is now the Prankster’s myth builder, spending his days among his artifacts, spouting off quotes that he attributes to Kesey—even though I’m pretty sure he makes them up on the spot.
In the midst of excavating his shed and avoiding his bathroom, I managed to talk with Babbs about pioneering the acid culture, what happened to their bus named Furthur, and how it feels to build a personal mythology.
VICE: Hey Ken, the life you’ve led has become a modern legend. How much of it all was real and how much was revisionist history?
Ken Babbs: People always ask, “Was this true? Was that true?” I say “Absolutely.” Our story has been retold so much that it has become myth. If all the people who said they were on that bus when we went to New York City in 1964 laid end-to-end, it would be about ten miles long. The really neat thing is that, as time goes on, the myth continues to grow. Everybody is adding to it. It’s getting huge. And then, a long time will pass, and it will be like Homer finally writing about Achilles. It’ll be condensed down into just the essence. I’d like to be around in 1,000 years and see what this myth will be condensed down into.
You’ll be the new Saint Peter.
I doubt that. Kerouac was the saint. We called him Saint Jack.
He was the holy dharma bum, the holy Beat, who saw that the “beat” was for “beatitude.” He blew soul. He sacrificed his life by drinking so much. He had to do that in order to keep his center centered. A lot of people drop out that way. It’s a sad story.
The Science Behind Tripping Balls
According to hippies, psychedelics are like a window opening into profound introspection, or a catapult into transcendence. They are not lying. My last psychotropic moment of insight actually happened just a week ago, when I found myself simultaneously pissing, retching, hallucinating, crying, and shivering in some rancid bathroom. Fuck this, I divined in a two-second window of lucidity, drugs are a sham.
It was a crucial moment of disillusionment—a turning point in an illustrious few years of shoving random shit up my nose and down my throat. Drugs had become nothing more than cheap satisfaction followed by disgust-tinged regret, like shitty instant noodles on a boring Sunday night.
Were my receptors just fried? Would I have to resort to some kumbaya crap to coax meaning back into my trips? I needed some help from The Experts, so I devoted last weekend to Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics—a three-day academic conference featuring the brightest names in psychedelic research, held every fall in New York’s Judson Memorial Church.
Compared to the dozens of psychedelic summits that happen each year around the country, speakers don’t prattle on about their life-changing ayahuasca trips during some shamanistic ritual in South America (so shut up, Penn Badgly), or how much groovier everything was back in the 60s. Horizons focuses predominantly on contemporary research, meaning fewer feelings and more facts.
Here’s what I learned about the science behind tripping balls.
A Psychedelic Renaissance Is Happening, Bitches
The opening party was at the Rubin Museum, a yogi’s paradise of ancient Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian art. There, I ran into Neal, one of the conference’s organizers. He invited me back to his place, where we shared a joint while he lamented the dearth of funding needed to re-classify drugs like 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (that’s your BFF, Molly), psilocybin, and ayahuasca as Schedule II substances, despite their apparent medicinal benefits for patients with terminal cancer and PTSD, among others.
But apparently, clinical trials using psychedelics are winning increasing recognition by mainstream academia and approval from the FDA. This rebirth of psychedelics as therapeutic tools has been dubbed the “psychedelic renaissance”—which harkens back to the 60s and 70s, except minus the shitshow of excess those decades kind of collapsed into.