Social media applications have made buying illegal drugs as easy as ordering pizza
How easy is it to find illegal drugs on social media apps? It’s almost as convenient as calling an Uber or ordering a pizza, according to a report released March 8 by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
Access to illegal drugs is “staggering” on social media apps, the report found, and has contributed to a surge in fentanyl overdoses, which have become the leading cause of preventable death for adults under 45, ahead of suicide, gun violence and car accidents.
The 182-page report outlined the ways in which drug dealers use aggressive marketing tactics to sell illegal drugs online, often targeting younger buyers, and urged social media platforms and state lawmakers to enforce new policies to crack down on sales.
The report, the first of its kind called for by the attorney general’s office, was created in response to a state law passed in 2022 that requires the Colorado Department of Justice to study how the Internet and social media are being used to sell and distribute fentanyl. other counterfeit prescription drugs.
With the rise, convenience and lack of regulation of social media applications, platforms including TikTok, Snapchat and WhatsApp have become a major tool for drug sales, the report said.
“Where once a teenager had to visit a street dealer, get in trouble with friends or learn to navigate the dark web to access illicit drugs, young people can now use their smartphones to find drug dealers – with relatively simple food delivery or ordering. calling for a ride-sharing service,” Weiser wrote in the report. Officials spoke with former drug users, dealers and families of overdose victims for the report.
At least 1,881 Coloradans died of drug overdoses in 2021, and roughly half of those deaths were from fentanyl, according to state data. Many people take fentanyl without realizing it, as the cheap synthetic opioid is cut into other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
According to the report, six out of 10 counterfeit prescription pills contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
Citing limited access to data on social media platforms, he did not quantify exactly how big the online illicit drug market has become. However, research suggests that drug dealers and buyers are using the internet and social media platforms as a “primary vehicle for drug transactions”.
Searches for “Denver” and “Boulder” on the Kik messaging app returned dozens of results for groups that were open to the public selling and buying drugs, according to the report.
“Connecting with a local dealer only took minutes,” the report said.
According to the report, dealers use slang, emoticons, QR codes and disappearing messages to promote drugs to help reach customers while avoiding content moderation tools on social media platforms. Drug dealers are often active on multiple social media platforms — promoting their products on Instagram, but also putting their WhatApps or Snapchat handles to engage — making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to crack down on sales.
According to the report, sellers can create new profiles as soon as a profile is suspended or removed, creating a frustrating “mole” effect for local law enforcement.
Many social media companies, including Meta, TikTok and Snapchat, have policies that prohibit advertising, buying or selling drugs, and some have made efforts with law enforcement to address the issue.
But the companies’ responses to drug activity on their platforms are “uneven in their application and limited in their effectiveness,” the report said.
Weiser urged social media companies to adopt strong, uniform practices to prevent and respond to illegal drug sales. He also called for a federal agency to oversee social media platforms and legislation that would give the federal government more access to their data.
Hank Dempsey, the state’s head of public policy for Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, called Weiser’s report a “must read” for anyone working to combat the fentanyl crisis. He said he appreciates working with the Attorney General’s Office “by sharing our insights and efforts on our platform to aggressively combat drug activity, including our zero-tolerance policies.”
Meta spokeswoman Jeanne Moran said in an email that “content promoting the purchase, sale or trade of drugs is not permitted on Facebook or Instagram, regardless of state or country laws.” The company is “working hard” to keep drug sales off its platforms, and users who post content that violates its policies may have their accounts removed.
Kayla Whaling, a spokeswoman for Match Group, the parent company of Tinder and Hinge, said the report focuses on a critical issue and that the company “supports any conversation aimed at making online platforms safer.”
“However, we strongly disagree with how our brand is being classified and have contacted Attorney General Weiser’s office to refute the inaccurate claims in the report,” Whaling said. He said their platforms were “very inefficient” at selling drugs because they were designed for one-on-one interactions, and the company made proactive efforts to ban accounts that mentioned drugs.
TikTok did not return requests for comment.
The report made several recommendations for Colorado lawmakers to pass new protections to prevent such sales, including:
• Requiring platforms to create and publicly disclose their policies on illegal drug sales and how law enforcement can request account records;
• Force platforms to submit annual reports to the Department of Justice detailing the amount of content on apps promoting the purchase or sale of illegal drugs, as well as how many times the posts have been shared and viewed. It also recommends listing the number of times the platform has proactively notified law enforcement about posts selling or promoting illegal drugs; Provide more resources to support local law enforcement efforts to investigate online drug cases.
The Justice Department worked with representatives from Meta, Snapchat, and TikTok, as well as law enforcement, public health experts, and harm reduction advocates to compile the report.
This story comes from The Colorado Sun, a Denver-based journalist-owned news outlet covering the state. For more information and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner of the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.