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How teens are using social media to buy and sell fentanyl-laced drugs

Overdose Deaths
Secretive emojis
Posted at 4:04 PM, Jun 06, 2022

The drug and fentanyl epidemic is moving to the social media sphere, and many parents do not know their kids are part of it.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows between 2019 and 2021, the number of teens who died from fentanyl increased from 253 to 884. Many of those fentanyl-laced drugs were purchased over clandestine social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and Wickr.

“It’s pretty scary what you can go online and have shipped to your house pretty easily,” said Steve Carleton, clinical director of Gallus Medical Detox, which has seen more teen patients arrive recently.

The transaction starts with advertising on apps like Instagram or Facebook, public platforms where dealers will post suggestive emojis looking for customers. After a connection is made, the seller and buyer will transition to more secretive apps where messages either delete after sending or come encrypted to discuss the terms of the transaction. After that, payment is sent, drugs are shipped, and within minutes, the deal is done.

“Drug trafficking networks have exploited this,” said Brian Besser, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Denver Field Division. “They know that if they can operate in anonymity and they can reach millions of users at a time, they win.”

So far this year, the DEA’s Denver Field Division has seized 1.2 million pills, a number far higher than in years past, and many of them come laced with fentanyl. Besser says this is happening in every corner of the country and affecting millions of kids and teens.

“What used to take hours or days can be completed in literally minutes or seconds,” he said. “That is where the game has changed. The idea of a young person obtaining a potentially deadly psychotropic drug within seconds is what is alarming to us.”

To combat it, Besser says people should educate themselves on the signs, like emoji sellers and buyer usage. He also said it's important for parents to communicate with their children.

“I’ve never had a single parent come up to me and say, 'I regret getting in my kid’s business,'” said Besser. “I’ve had many come up to me and say, 'I regret that I didn’t because my child is gone.'”