Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are the newest dark alleyways dealers use to sell drugs
And the DEA can't keep up.
Cute cats. Vacation pics. Yoga poses. Ecstasy pills. Plates of food. *stretches thumb* Photos of weed with a fire emoji. New baby comes home! Xanax bars and dollar signs. This is what Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter look like to many young people. That’s one thing users, researchers and drug dealers moving loads of product on social media all agree on.
It isn’t like what it once was. Dealing isn’t tucked away behind dumpsters anymore. Illegal narcotics are now inextricably intertwined with shared photos and status updates. There are thousands of pushers in everyone’s pocket at all times.
It’s easy to see for yourself. Search for certain hashtags — #bars or #psychedelics — and dozens of them show up instantly.
The handles are blatant: PlugForYou, 420PlusPlus, PluggedSolutions, MethBud. The profiles seem crazily brazen. Reckless. Fucks given? Less than one. In the bio, emojis of mushrooms and pills accompany the photos of LSD tabs and piles of white powder on dining room tables. In the feed, festival girls and stacks of cash make it look like fun.
Follow a few dealers, and the company’s algorithms suggest more you might like. The complicated equations know where you live, and will connect you to plugs nearby.
We messaged three dealers found on our Twitter feed, through secure apps like Wickr or via regular text and phone calls. Within an hour, all agreed to deliver to us. One said he’d bring a gram of 2c-i — a drug said to be wonderful but rarely seen in real life, a sort of gem of psychedelics. It was $100, a decent price.
Another offered to deliver 500 grams of crystal meth to our door — a shitload of one of the scariest drugs in the galaxy — within about five hours. Cost? Only $1,450 in bitcoin.
A third dealer said he’d mail us ecstasy the next day.
We didn’t follow through. These types of deals can go terribly wrong. But placing these orders was only a little more difficult than ordering burgers from GrubHub.
COMMON IN AN UNCOMMON WAY
No one is sure exactly how prevalent social media drug dealing is. A new report by Volteface, a British harm reduction group, has sort of worked it out though. The report is called “DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media,” and says posts from drug dealers show up on about one-quarter of the feeds of young people in Britain. America is probably not that different.
The most common drug dealing platforms are Snapchat and Instagram, while the most common drugs advertised are, in order: weed, coke, ecstasy, xanax, whippets and lean. Social media drug dealing is so common, so normal, only half of the kids Volteface talked to were worried that it was somehow “bad.” To them, pictures of drugs are just another post.
This apathetic perspective worries Volteface. “Seeing drugs advertised for sale on social media may normalise drug use,” says the report. “It is concerning that many young people in the UK are bombarded by these advertisements but are unlikely to be in receipt of good quality drugs education.”
Adults, too, are furious. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin wants to hold sites legally responsible if a drug deal happens on their platforms, busting Facebook or Twitter like any other middleman in the drug trade.
A Facebook rep admitted to the Washington Post recently that its tech can’t “tease apart every post to see if it’s trying to sell someone illegal drugs or they are taking Xanax cause they are stressed out.” As anyone knows, context matters in the age of social media.
To their credit, Facebook and Instagram are taking the necessary steps. A Facebook spokesperson emailed us, “Our Community Standards make it very clear that buying, selling or trading drugs is not allowed anywhere. We remove any content that violates these policies.” Facebook said it took down nearly a million pieces of drug sale content in just the first three months of this year, 50 percent more drug content than they deleted in the previous three months. Most of the drug content they deleted proactively, without anyone reporting it.
The sites have banned certain hashtags. Searches for “fentanyl” and “methamphetamine” bring up news and videos about the drugs’ dangers, not sellers. In an email, Snapchat stressed to us that posts on its platform are not searchable, and so locating dealers is harder.
But dealers are creative, and work around hashtags. They draw their messages and prices on their posts using crude graphics, or use emojis. A picture is worth 1,000 hashtags, after all.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
“Tom” is one of the dealers we spoke with. He sells ecstasy, 2C-B and DMT openly on Twitch. He can mail it directly to your house. To speak with him, we called the number listed on this profile. He spoke with a vague foreign accent. We asked: “How do you defend selling, say, ecstasy, so openly, where any kid can buy it? Used in excess, you know, ecstasy can fry your brain.”
“If I am making it too easy to get drugs,” said Tom, “the whole government is making it too easy for crime to get into drug dealing.”
He has a point. Street dealing, illegal and unregulated, has always been riddled with violence — robberies and fights are part of the culture. “On the street, it’s more hardened drug dealers and criminals,” says a former drug dealer in Denver who asked to be called Sandman. Out “there,” Sandman said he’s bought and sold from prostitutes in alleys, large men in dark doorways and homeless dudes with menacing eyes. But on social media, where Sandman’s 20,000 followers sometimes buy opioids from him: “It’s mostly white kids like myself.”
Sandman delivers in person. He says he’s never had any real problems like before.
Of course, cops scan Instagram just like addicts do, looking to connect dealers to prison. Sandman says he had his house raided once because of it. Authorities took his drugs and $500 in cash.
“Gary,” a Twitter meth dealer, told us via text that a client set him up by telling the cops where he was at. “I was busted once but that was a while ago,” he says. But he believes he’s gotten better. “Now everything is done very discrete.”
Often, the dealers bring themselves down. In one case, a British hustler named Levi Watson told cops he wasn’t a drug dealer — but they saw an Instagram post where he was literally taking a bath in cash. Seven years was what he got behind bars.
Another online dealer, a Boston meathead with the handle @MuscleHead320, reportedly sold millions of dollars of steroids on Instagram. The detective who nailed him told Boston Magazine it wasn’t all about the money, though: “He wanted followers. He wanted acceptance.” He got 10 years.
(Jay Z tried to warn ‘em: “I don’t be on the ‘Gram goin’ ham / Givin’ information to the pork, that’s all spam.”)
But the worst bad trip isn’t prison, it’s the morgue. More and more pills from the Internet are fakes, or laced with deadly fentanyl. It might not be long before an Instagram drug deal kills, a headline no media outlet will be able to pass up.
SAME SHIT, DIFFERENT DEALS
Drugs aren’t all bad. Of course, they’re not all good, either. They’re mixed. People like drugs because drugs fill a need in their lives — for fun, enlightenment, sex, escape, greed, power, self-harm, self-destruction.
Tom, the Twitch ecstasy dealer, believes in his drugs. “I want to put this notion out there, not every drug is harmful,” he says. Ecstasy, when used in professional therapeutic settings, is increasingly becoming a “breakthrough treatment” for PTSD. The government even says so.
As for the quality being sold online, it’s hard to say. Tom, however, sends test strips to check purity. And, if you’re having a bad trip, Tom says you can call him anytime and he’ll coach you through it. Five stars for customer service.
Of course, Tom could be full of shit, and his whole site a scam. But, he talks a good game.
As far as the people in charge are concerned: we called the DEA four times and emailed them twice to see how they’re handling social media drug deals. No one responded. It’s possible the DEA doesn’t know how to handle this. It may be un-handle-able. It kind of always has been.
Every day, there are about 500 million Instagram stories, 500 million Tweets, 200 million Facebook posts and 3 billion Snaps. Monitoring all that on a human level is impossible, and in some cases, illegal. How many cops at how many laptops? And, if Artificial Intelligence manages to stop dealing on major social sites, won’t users just move? XBox chat? My Little Pony fan pages?
“Whack-a-mole” is the phrase used over and over with the Drug War — officially America’s longest, most endless war. The DEA arrested El Chapo, and rival Mexican cartels answered by leveling up. They’re even more violent and harder to track than before. The DEA burns Colombia’s cocaine plants, users turn to Chinese synthetic stuff. Drugs — like so much else — are more decentralized, a tangled web, unseen: sent through the mail, spread by phone, email, casual friends, “friends” and “followers.” To think social media sites cracking down on dealers will do any better than the DEA is myopic, at best.
When he created Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg said his goal was to connect us all. Well, the world’s most popular websites and apps are now connects. Sure. And unless the apps and the cops stop them, they’ll end up moving more weight than El Chapo ever could.