Are teen drug sales on Snapchat, social media on the rise? Local law enforcement officers weigh in

Composite image with background courtesy of Pixabay and cell phone by Allanswar/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE For anyone who thought that maple leaf emoji was just a maple leaf – think again. It’s actually the universal code for marijuana, alongside a whole host of other emoji symbols used by teens to buy and sell drugs online.

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Long gone are the days when the only source of drugs was a shady-looking character in an even shadier part of town. With the rise of social media and the internet, teens have access to a new generation of digital dealers who are little more than a click away.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are online “almost constantly.”

A study published in January by the National Institutes of Health reported more than three-quarters of those interviewed said they’d used Snapchat to buy drugs. Instagram was the next most popular, with around one in five saying they’d used it to arrange deals. WhatsApp, Kik and Wickr were all also frequently cited, with Tinder and Grindr also among the apps used to buy and sell drugs.

The general rule is that social media provides the platform for connecting buyers and sellers, then deals take place using encrypted communication services, the study says, and this can be particularly dangerous for teens.

Snapchat has implemented community guidelines to “support our mission by encouraging the broadest range of self-expression while making sure Snapchatters can use our services safely every day,” while prohibiting the posting of sexually explicit photos, bullying messages, impersonation, illegal sales or spam and so on.

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Even so, the site has become a virtual black market for illegal drug sales by teens as young as 13-years old, the National Institutes study shows. Additionally, drug dealers have implemented their own marketing strategies by using hashtags and emojis to indicate which drugs they sell and some even share images of the substances.

St. George Police Capt. Mike Giles told St. George News there are a number of tactics individuals use to market illegal substances, and those involved in this type of activity will use social media outlets or “whatever means they can” to market the drugs.

Without getting into specifics, Giles went on to say the Washington County Drug Task Force is trained and equipped to investigate the various means by which narcotics are distributed and sold – including sales involving the internet.

“Drug dealers are opportunists,” one Washington County officer who preferred to remain anonymous said, adding that the Snapchat design model is the perfect venue for buying and selling drugs.

What other marketing tool can advertise an entire product line to all of its customers at that same time? Just post photos of the merchandise being sold and then wait for the private messages for orders to start rolling in.

Those private, one-on-one messages can be used to set a time and place for the actual drug sale, then disappear even faster than an image posted. In other words, there is no record of a specific transaction between the vendor and customer, and even if there was, anyone using the site for illicit activity would be using an alias so as not to be identified.

Drug sales on social media “is a huge problem right now,”Sgt. Jeff Malcom with the Beaver/Iron/Garfield Counties Narcotics Task Force said, adding that drugs are not only bought and sold on Snapchat or Instagram either.

Facebook is not only a site to connect with friends, it has also become a fertile marketplace for the drug trade using secret Facebook groups and chats.

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Setting up a secret Facebook group is one way dealers are able to sell narcotics without fear of being identified. While the groups are easy to set up, access to those groups can be very difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate, and for a parent the task is even harder, the Washington County officer said.

Those in the groups can communicate with each other using chats that can be deleted quickly or even automatically, making it difficult to trace the activity, and Facebook Messenger even has a built-in function for sending and receiving payments.

The officer added that apps are always changing. For example, there are dozens of apps that allow parents to see where their children’s phones are at any given time, but they all have one fatal flaw – it is easy to spoof locations to make it look like the phone is somewhere else.

“We have become so integrated with smartphones and apps to take care of many things in our lives, so we think putting a tracker or parental controls on our kids’ phones will keep them out of harm’s way,” he said. “But the reality is that it gives parents a false sense of security.”

He continued by saying that kids are smart, and parents need to take the time to catch up with technology that their children quickly to adapt to with the ever-changing cyber environment they have grown up in.

“It’s not enough to look at your child’s phone; you have to know what you’re looking for,” the officer said.

Every person interviewed for this story expressed one consistent theme – there is no substitute for parenting.

The bottom line, Malcom said, is that “parents have to be involved with their kids. You can’t just give them a cell phone and think everything’s going to be OK.”

There are a myriad dangers out there, he continued, and buying or selling drugs is just one problem. “There are also a lot of predators out here.”

“Be involved, I mean be really involved in your child’s life and know what they are doing. That’s the most important thing,” Malcom added.

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.


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