Anthony is my social circle’s drug dealer, and his Instagram account is his virtual storefront. His account is entirely private, his clients are his closest friends, and he’s cautious about allowing new customers access to his digital drug network.

Once he’s purchased a new supply of some recreational drug, research chemical or prescription medication, he snaps a flattering photo of the dope beside some icon of opulence — his expensive gold watch or Mercedes Benz hood ornament — and uploads it to his Instagram account along with a caption describing the product, its quality and cost. Interested customers can comment how much they’d like to buy, then Anthony calls to settle the deal.

 [Digital recreation of Anthony’s Instagram account]

His is a black-market variation of a universal marketing technique — using social media to promote products and services. And Anthony’s certainly not the only enterprising dope peddler utilizing a smartphone to facilitate his trade. On a multitude of apps — but most prevalently on Instagram — drug dealers are shamelessly touting their merchandise and making sales to expansive networks of young recreational drug seekers.

“With a massive number of active users, social media sites have become incredibly effective tools for advertising illegal drugs, especially for the photo-oriented sites like Instagram,” report researchers at the University of Rochester.

The researchers reveal that scoring narcotics is simple and effective in this widely-accessible illicit drug market. For example, since many dealers don’t have private accounts, buyers using a quick hashtag search on Instagram could yield countless results for marijuana, cocaine, codeine cough syrup, MDMA, prescription painkillers, mushrooms and/or LSD.

However, the benefits of app-based dealing aren’t exclusive to buyers. As an asset to sellers, posting photos of products to a prominent social medium like Instagram allows for increased visibility to customers. It can also provide “cautious” suppliers an extra level of security, allowing them to screen potential clients from behind the safety of a screen.

Yet unsurprisingly, for dealers and customers alike, the costs often exceed the advantages. In just one year, the federal government used Instagram to arrest over 350 drug dealers and seize 7 million dollars. What’s worse, these arrests are infinitely more damning than a typical street bust. A classic face-to-face drug exchange could only result in a single distribution charge, but with digital evidence, dealers could face prosecution for every discernable sale on their account, even when those transactions were not directly observed.

Although the dangers are abundant for dealers, recipients usually assume more of the risk. Unless buyer and seller live nearby, drugs are primarily shipped through the mail, in which case dealers are highly unlikely to slap a return address on their package. If the dispatched dope is intercepted by police, they’ll often allow the drugs to continue along the course to their recipients’ homes, only to arrest them once they sign for the package.

However hazardous these social media exchanges may be, mitigating them has so far proved challenging. In the past, Instagram has gone on internal anti-drug crusades, blocking various hashtags that dealers used to list high-demand drugs, like kush for marijuana, xannies for Xanax, or lean for codeine cough syrup.

Beyond that, Instagram depends on other users to manually report and remove illegal content, but given this strategy’s limited results, it seems the app is surprisingly short of narcs.

In the most recent prosecution efforts, the New York Attorney General’s office, along with the aforementioned University of Rochester researchers, have developed algorithms that can comb through millions of Instagram posts, identify potential drug dealers, and pass the suspects on to authorities for further investigation.

University of Rochester researchers’ hashtags and captions of drug-related posts. Left column keywords more likely indicate drug deals, whereas right column keywords more likely indicate innocuous drug discussion.

Yet even if novel enforcement methods can make a dent in Instagram’s drug dealings, there are endless more online avenues for buyers to find narcotics. On the DarkNet, a global market of mind-altering substances can be shipped directly to your door.

Beyond Instagram, myriad social media platforms can quickly and conveniently connect customers to dealers. Dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have gained popularity for offering both sellers and customers a deal in close proximity. Messaging apps like Snapchat and Kik have become favorites to work out the logistics of drug exchanges.

The underground market for illicit drugs is an endlessly evolving industry, consistently utilizing new technological strategies to advertise, communicate and distribute. Anthony ultimately deactivated his dope-peddling Instagram before police could catch on, but plentiful other online dealers remain on Instagram to meet the demands of drug-seekers.

Although he’s quit his digital display of breaking the law through one smartphone app, Anthony continues to discuss his dealings over Snapchat, accept payments over Venmo, and post pictures of stacks of cash to his Facebook.