Forget street corners, dodgy cars, or the dark web. According to the trailblazing report DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media published over the weekend by the think-tank Volteface, social media platforms are the new marketplace for selling and buying drugs, particularly among young people.
Drugs being sold on the internet is not necessarily news, but the report reveals how the phenomenon came a long way since drugs were bought with Bitcoins on Silk Road. The proliferation of drug dealing accounts on the most common platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook speaks of a grand-scale hashtag-driven trend, one that regulators are evidently struggling to keep up with.
Through evidence-based policy and reform, Volteface aims to reduce the harm drugs pose to individuals and society. When the organisation began the study, it was not expecting the issue of online drug dealing to be this extensive. Scarlett Furlong, the policy advisor at Volteface and co-author of the report, told Screen Shot, “When we started this research, we weren’t really sure about how big of an issue this was, particularly in the U.K. context. When finding that 1 in 4 young people have seen drugs advertised for sale we realised the range was quite abnormal,” adding that, “We were meant to publish this report last February, but after seeing how relevant all data were, we realised it was necessary to publish all our findings.” Alongside interviews and focus groups with children, the police, and youth workers, the report’s results are mainly based on polls of 2,006 young people, aged 16 to 24 years old, as well as observational trawls of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, where the researchers went undercover to observe the ways online drug dealings operate.
According to the report, it seems that social media is not only a place for customers to find and purchase drugs, but also an arena for targeting different demographics to become new customers, including new dealers. Young people who otherwise might have never ended up within an environment where drugs are sold and bought offline, could now find themselves just a few hashtags and scrolls away from online communities of drug dealers. One of the main concerns raised by the report is the role that social media platforms are playing in normalising drug use. During its study, Volteface interviewed an anonymous young person who admitted that, “it romanticises it. People think that nothing can go wrong. It really overshadows any drug education people had in the past, like in PSHE lessons or anything like that.”
Personal relationships between dealers and customers have always existed, but social media has tightened the gap between the two parties, creating a close relationship before any transactions take place. It creates the same feeling of familiarity we might have with strangers we follow on Instagram. As quoted in the report, potential buyers “stumble upon numerous dealers showing what young people perceive to be their ‘authentic’ self, or, as is the case with all social media, a side of themselves that the dealer wants the social media user to see. Drug dealers posting about going to college, talking about their family and going to comedy shows.” Dealers are suddenly like everyone else, and with that dispelling any connotations of dangerous and illicit activities that previously existed.
The design of our favourite online platforms, as well as their algorithms, plays a crucial role in the spreading of online drug dealing. Via features such as the ‘suggested friends’ bar and by looking at other people’s ‘following’, ‘follower’ or ‘friends’ list, young persons could find dealers extremely easily. Compared to the dark web, for instance, social media platforms are more user-friendly and way less complicated to navigate, and features such as screenshots, hashtags, swipe-ups, and saved Instagram stories are allowing dealers to be as creative as they want when advertising their products.
Drug dealing has always had specific codes attached to it, including slang that develops with time. Within this context, emojis have become the ultimate alphabet to communicate prices and offers. With an entire visual vocabulary at their disposal, dealers found the perfect way to describe their products clearly without using explicit descriptions nor posting graphic images of actual drugs—although this happens quite frequently too. Eventually, like every digital phenomenon, drug dealing too has picked up the dynamics that are intrinsic to social media platforms: with dealers doing shout-outs to other dealers, calling out scammers, and even growing a considerable amount of followers.
The report goes beyond revealing the shift from offline to online dealing, as it’s shedding light on current drug trends more broadly. “One of the things I was most surprised by was the prescription medications that were sold online. Xanax is the fourth most seen drug that young people have seen online,” Furlong said. The rise of prescribed drugs and their success on social media is an indication of today’s tendencies when it comes to drug consumption. Xanax is the fourth most seen drugs on social media, just after weed, cocaine, and ecstasy—a finding that hasn’t yet been properly acknowledged by institutions, schools, and experts.
The relentless proliferation of online drug dealing and the explicitness through which dealers are using social media platforms clearly speak of a delay in regulations and effective controls. Like with most digital phenomenons, regulators are struggling to keep up with the pace and the codes of online drug dealing. “We want to share all the information we have collected with legislators and companies alike to make sure we all work together to prevent this to grow exponentially,” Furlong adds.
According to Volteface, the government should introduce a regulatory requirement for social media companies to monitor activity on their platforms and to ensure that they are aware of how language, emojis, and design features are used to facilitate drug dealing. Moreover, the report recommends that this research is used to inform already existing algorithms that monitor and remove dealers’ accounts and that “Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram should be included within the scope of the Government’s Online Harms regulatory framework”. Staying coherent with its belief, Volteface is confident that even in this context, cannabis legalisation would be the most effective policy to alleviate the problems outlined in the study.
This phenomenon isn’t simply the migration of drug dealing from real life to the Internet, but also seems to be a brand new way of dealing illegal substances altogether; it is a way of selling and purchasing drugs that is infused with the same social media dynamic young people relate to on a daily basis.
On May 31, the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public hearing to obtain scientific data and information about the safety, manufacturing, product quality, marketing, labelling, and sale of products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived products. At this point, there’s almost no need to ask why. In the U.S., as well as in the U.K. and many other countries, cannabis-related products have flooded the market, making health claims about pain relief, immune function, anxiety, and depression. But it turns out there is little known about how effective these are.
My aim here is not to demonise cannabis Nixon-style but to underline the uncertainty that surrounds it. Understandably, it is difficult to push people to study a substance that until very recently has been almost globally illegal. Even the few studies we’ve had on the topic are outdated, with all the recent developments made in plant-breeding and the changes made in THC concentrations (from the low single digits to more than twenty percent).
From my personal experience, cannabis products seem to work for pain relief and treating anxiety. But I’m not a doctor, and everyone reacts differently to different things. Although it was very necessary, the FDA’s public hearing delivered close to no results and one clear answer: we don’t have enough scientific research to prove the medical benefits of cannabis, and we need to get on it ASAP. What do we have? Testimonies from recreational smokers, cancer patients and new products showing up everywhere—new types of weed, CBD oils, vapes, edibles, creams and more.
When discussing cannabis on a political level, the argument of it being a ‘gateway’ drug is always raised by more conservative voices. And in response to this, there are often two rigid answers: the first one would be that weed has a negative neurological effect on us and pushes people to behave in certain ways, leading them to more serious addictions. The second answer is that, on the contrary, marijuana offers people a safer alternative to other ‘stronger’ drugs, keeping them away from opioids and stimulants. And here again, both answers sound too short-sighted, and I can’t help but feel like we’re missing years of research on a variety of participants to really assert anything.
During the FDA’s hearing, acting commissioner and director of the National Cancer Institute Dr. Ned Sharpless said, “When hemp was removed as a controlled substance, this lack of research, and therefore evidence, to support CBD’s broader use in FDA-regulated products, including in foods and dietary supplements, has resulted in unique complexities for its regulation, including many unanswered questions related to its safety”. And this raises another issue—how exactly are we going to regulate something that has recently become legal in some countries when we don’t even know its long-term effects?
For now, all these questions are left with no answers. We’re only a bit over a decade into the widespread recreational use of marijuana, meaning the data we actually have are pretty messy and vague. The same issue will probably show up in a few years, this time concerning e-cigarettes and vapes. The only certainty I have to offer is that, yes, we need more scientific research on cannabis-derived products. Until then, nothing can be said for sure, not that it matters most of the time. What’s important to remember is how many deaths marijuana has caused: zero, nada, unlike many other drugs, and let’s be honest here, who doesn’t like to spark up after a long day? Junk food clogs your arteries and yet you’ll see me eating chicken nuggets like they’re going out of fashion. I’ll leave you with my hypocritical advice: consume everything in moderation—chicken nuggets and weed included.