Drug dealers are branching out to platforms and apps, popular with young people, such as Instagram, Tinder, Kik and shopping app Depop to sell their wares. These can be anything from prescription medication and research chemicals to recreational drugs.
The process is simple. On Instagram, using the social platform convention of hash tagging, a potential customer trawls through the app looking for phrases like #weed4sale or the names of the drugs themselves (#mdma, #mephedrone etc). The customer then contacts the owner of the account and the deal moves along through direct messages. In the case of Tinder, potential customers can swipe through profiles until they find a dealer and match with them.
Buyers can either meet face-to-face or pay online and have their purchases posted to them. While online payments such as bitcoin and pre-paid gift cards such as Vanilla Visa are encrypted, more traceable measures such as unattributed bank transfers and PayPal are also used.
Online dealers mostly sell their drugs as “research” even though pills are put in bottles or blister packs and powders in capsules.“Despite packaging them specifically for human consumption, vendors attempt plausible deniability when it comes to what they sell,” says Moe, a former user who bought legal and illegal drugs online from the age of 16.
There are few firm statistics about who’s buying drugs over social media but interviews I did suggests young people are a market. Despite the risks – which include getting scammed, getting caught and having no guarantee about strength or composition of drugs – Moe says the internet is popular among teens who have no personal connections to drug dealers and users. In particular, he says, research chemicals that are legal for medical or clinical trial purposes are being bought online by teenagers who don’t otherwise have access to illegal drugs.
Not everyone who buys drugs online is doing it to get high. I have spoken to young people in the LGBTQ community who buy hormones for gender transitioning online because it bypasses restrictions and bureaucracy in the NHS.
“The system doesn’t guarantee what trans people need, and illegal underground behaviour becomes the way to get it, which in turn sustains systemic problems,” explains sociologist Bilal Zenab Ahmed.
Weeding out offenders
“Promoting the sale of, or selling marijuana and other drugs is against our community guidelines,” says an Instagram spokesperson. “We encourage anyone who comes across violating content to report it via our built-in reporting tools.”
Anonymous mobile chat app Kik says it doesn’t “tolerate any illegal activity” and “cooperates with law enforcement requests when appropriate”. It says it will shut the accounts of users when misuse comes to its attention.
Despite an explicit and extensive list of prohibited items, vendors on the popular buy-and-sell network Depop have still managed to list prescription drugs like ritalin or dexamphetamine, and unlicensed “smart drugs” like modafinil. Depop says it has a no-tolerance rule to restricted sales and reacts immediately when it identifies or is alerted to items or activities against its guidelines.
Tinder was contacted for comment but hasn’t responded.
The common thread is that these social platforms and websites rely on their millions of users to report inappropriate content. Even the police rely on reporting from the public, encouraging people to contact their local force or the cybercrime unit if they see suspicious behavior on the internet.
Until image detection technology is sophisticated enough, vetting images before they are uploaded would be highly resource intensive and counterintuitive to a social platform selling itself on being instant or quick.
Cracking down on online dealing
After being in and out of the justice and rehab system for a number of years since the age of 17, Moe says that arrests for drugs bought online tend to happen separately to the initial transaction. “You get the drugs, then you do something stupid with the drugs on you, or you sell them in person,” he says.
Karen Bradley, the UK’s minister for preventing abuse, exploitation and crime, says government and law enforcement agencies take the unlawful advertising and sale of drugs on the internet seriously. She says: “We continue to work with internet providers to ensure they comply – this can include closure of UK-based websites where they are found to be committing offences.”