How easy is it to find illegal drugs on social media apps? Nearly as convenient as calling an Uber or ordering a pizza, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office said in a report released March 8.
Access to illegal drugs is “staggering” on social media apps, the report found, and has contributed to the surging number fentanyl overdoses, which has become the leading cause of preventable death for adults under 45, outpacing 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 customers, and urged social media platforms and state legislators to enforce new policies to crack down on the sales.
The report, which the attorney general’s office is calling first of its kind, was written under a state law passed in 2022 that requires the Colorado Department of Law to study how the internet and social media platforms are used for the sale and distribution of fentanyl and other counterfeit prescription drugs.
With the rise of social media apps, their convenience and lack of regulation, platforms including TikTok, Snapchat and WhatsApp, have become a major vehicle for drug sales, the report said.
“Where once a teen might have had to seek out a street dealer, hassle friends, or learn to navigate the dark web to access illicit drugs, young people can now locate drug dealers using their smartphones — with the relative ease of ordering food delivery or calling a ride-share service,” Weiser wrote in the report. Officials spoke with former drug users and sellers and families of overdose victims for the report.
In 2021, at least 1,881 Coloradans died of a drug overdose and roughly half of those people died of fentanyl, according to state data. Many of those people are taking fentanyl without realizing it, as the cheap synthetic opioid is cut into other drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
As many as six in 10 counterfeit prescription pills contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, the report said.
It didn’t quantify exactly how large the online illicit drug market has become, citing limited access to the social media platforms’ data. But research suggests that drug dealers and buyers turn to the internet and social media platforms “as a primary vehicle for drug transactions.”
A search for “Denver” and “Boulder” on the Kik messaging app returned dozens of results for groups dedicated to selling and buying drugs that were open to the public, the report showed.
“Connecting with a local dealer took mere minutes,” the report said.
Dealers advertise drugs using slang, emojis, QR codes and disappearing messages that help reach customers while evading content moderation tools on the social media platforms, the report said. Often drug sellers are active on multiple social media platforms — advertising their products on Instagram, but listing their WhatApps or Snapchat handles for inquiries — which makes it harder for law enforcement to crack down on the sales.
Sellers can create new profiles as soon as one is suspended or removed, creating a frustrating “whack-a-mole” effect for local law enforcement, the report said.
A lot of social media companies, including Meta, TikTok and Snapchat, have policies that ban advertising, buying or selling drugs and some have made efforts to work with law enforcement to address the issue.
But the report said the companies’ responses to drug activity on their platforms have been “uneven in their application and limited in effectiveness.”
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 head of state public policy for Snapchat’s parent company, Snap Inc., called Weiser’s report a “must-read report” for anyone working to combat the fentanyl crisis. He said he appreciated working with the attorney general’s office “to contribute by sharing our insights and efforts to aggressively combat drug activity on our platform, including our policies that take a zero tolerance approach to this abuse.”
In an email, Meta spokeswoman Jeanne Moran said “content that attempts to buy, sell or trade drugs is not allowed on Facebook or Instagram, regardless of state or country law.” The company is “working hard” to keep drug sales off the platforms and users that post content that violates its policies could have their account removed.
Kayla Whaling, spokeswoman for the Tinder and Hinge parent company Match Group, said the report focused on a critical issue and that the company is “supportive of any conversation that aims to help make internet platforms safer.”
“However, we strongly disagree with how our brand is categorized here and we have been in contact with Attorney General Weiser’s office to refute the inaccurate claims in this report,” Whaling said. She said their platforms are “very inefficient” for drug sales since they are designed for one-on-one interactions and that the company has made proactive efforts to ban accounts that mention drugs.
TikTok did not return requests for comment.
The report made several recommendations for Colorado lawmakers to pass new protections to help prevent such sales, including:
• Requiring platforms to create and publicly post their policy on illegal drug sales and how law enforcement can request account records;
• Enforcing platforms to submit annual reports to the Department of Law showing the amount of content on the apps that promoted the purchase or sale of illegal drugs and how many times the posts were shared and viewed. It also suggests listing the number of times the platform proactively provided law enforcement with information about posts selling or advertising illegal drugs; Provide more resources to support local law enforcement efforts to investigate online narcotics cases.
The Department of Law worked with representatives from Meta, Snapchat and TikTok to compile the report, as well as law enforcement, public health experts and harm reduction advocates.
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.