Social media apps are increasingly likely to be used by young people to buy illegal drugs, research suggests.
The study, from Royal Holloway, University of London, says drug users valued the convenience and speed of buying drugs via apps like Snapchat.
It warns that buyers are at risk in terms of personal safety and drug quality and that many have a “false security” of escaping law enforcement.
It says educating young people about the risks is “crucial and urgent”.
The study warns many are in denial about the risks: “On the whole, app users had well-rehearsed narratives that justified their continued confidence in purchasing substances from unknown suppliers on apps.”
How did the researchers carry out their study?
The study – #Drugsforsale: An exploration of the use of social media and encrypted messaging apps to supply and access drugs – is based on an online survey of 358 users, 288 of whom had used apps to buy drugs and 70 who had thought about it.
Most of these users were in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US and the average age of the participants was 18.
The researchers also conducted face-to-face interviews with 20 young people and in-depth interviews with a further 27.
It found that while “social supply” of drugs through friends is still typically preferred, apps are “fast becoming a viable option for accessing drugs”.
Of the 358 online participants, 76% said they regularly used Snapchat, while 21% favoured Instagram.
Why do people use apps to source drugs?
The study found that the convenience of organising a transaction was the most commonly reported advantage, with 79% giving this as a reason for using apps.
Alex, 27, told the researchers it felt “safe, easier and twice as quick as trying to nail down someone on the end of a line”.
The drugs turned up with the guy and I paid him […] I never looked back.”
Zach, 22, said: “It just seemed like a simple, modern way to buy things. I’d gotten pretty sick of the dark net because I never really got it, so had to always have a friend on hand to help me out.
“Plenty of dealers in this area exist solely on Snapchat, so without it, I would’ve kept relying on people approaching me in the street or randomly bumping into people in clubs.”
While 59% of these users valued the speed with which they could buy drugs, 35% liked the fact that apps offered access to substances they were previously unable to source.
Jess, 23, told researchers that she could not get hold of particular drugs that she wanted, “because I didn’t know anyone selling them so the first time I had both I bought them through apps”.
Another perceived advantage was that apps “provided an opportunity to assess drug quality and safety”, in that dealers would upload images and videos of substances in a bid to reassure their buyers.
Olly, 18, said: “The first time I bought Xanax it was through Snapchat because I could watch the dealer opening sealed packets on his story before he sold them and I therefore felt safe consuming them.”
What concerns do the researchers raise?
The study raises a number of concerns about the safety of those who purchase drugs on these platforms.
It also notes that many of the people think they will avoid law enforcement by buying drugs in this way.
“The key point is that many app users are misinformed, or make erroneous assumptions regarding the protections they offer.
“The provision of education relating to the security risks of using apps is therefore essential.”
Lead researcher Dr Leah Moyle from Royal Holloway, said: “While our results show that buying from a known and trusted person is still the preferred access method for most drug users, it seems likely that app-usage will continue to grow in this market, especially among young people.
“Considering the popularity of apps and their potential to provide access to the wider commercial drug market, educating people of the possible risks of purchasing unknown substances from strangers on social media platforms is clearly both critical and urgent.”
The paper is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.
How have the social media companies responded?
A spokeswoman for Snapchat said: “Accounts that use Snapchat to sell drugs are an intentional abuse of the terms of service and we remove these accounts when they are reported.
“We take our commitment to protecting Snapchatters from any misuse of our platform extremely seriously, and have partnered with best-in-class safety experts to inform our approach to these issues.”
Instagram says that buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs on its platform is not allowed and the company encourages anyone who comes across content of this sort to report it.
It says it has long, well-established relationships with law enforcement, who it works closely with to improve detection and removal of illegal material.
How the internet is used to buy drugs online
The internet has changed the world forever. Its introduction into our homes, communities, workplaces and social spaces has fundamentally shifted every manner of interaction. For many, the internet has been miraculous: it educates people all across the planet, it expands the reach of resources and it ultimately glues us all together within its binary web of information and connectivity. But it also comes with a curse.
One corner of the internet has become a marketplace for the buying and selling of all things illegal: the dark web. This is where drug trades, weapon sales, human trafficking and a number of other illegal operations are conducted behind the veil of internet anonymity.
In this article, we’ll focus on the purchase of drugs online, what the dark web really is, its dangers, how to tell if someone uses it and the best advice if you’re concerned for someone using it.
Why do people use the dark web?
One of the bigger changes the internet has introduced to the global marketplace is the ability to find, purchase and receive goods without ever leaving the comfort of home. And the convenience is noticeably wonderful. But it also allows for the purchase of illegal drugs online, making some homes the scene of a drug transaction—often with parents or partners having no idea—and thus circumventing the need for either a prescription or pharmacy, or the visit to a drug dealer in person.
Purchasers of illegal drugs are cautious in their transactions: they generally would not buy or sell drugs online over the World Wide Web—also known as the clear net or surface web—because their IP address would be traceable. Instead, they prefer the anonymity of the dark web.
What is the dark web?
Most web users spend their time on the surface web which makes up only a small fraction (an estimated five percent) of the internet. The majority of the internet (an estimated 95 percent) exists within the deep web, unindexed by search engines like Google and Bing. The dark web lives within the deep web, and it requires specific software, configurations and authorization to access.
Once someone has access, they can use its dark web markets to anonymously purchase without prescription any drug they want from online dealers or illegal online pharmacies. And the cryptocurrencies—digital currencies with strong cryptography—that users often trade with add extra layers of anonymity, keeping secret any personal information about location or identity.
Much like the surface web, the dark web is made up of friend-to-friend and peer-to-peer networks, along with larger popular networks like Tor, Freenet and Riffle. The most popular Tor network is Silk Road—an online black market that allows anonymous browsing without any traffic monitoring.
What is Silk Road?
Silk Road was the first dark market of its kind, and it’s best known for the buying and selling of illegal drugs online. Silk Road launched in 2011, and although it was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigations by 2013, it took less than a month for its successor, Silk Road 2.0, to launch. Silk Road 2.0 was then shut down once again in 2014, and the United States government later seized more than $1 billion worth of Bitcoin in November 2020.
What can be bought on the dark web?
If it’s illegal, it’s likely found on the dark web, usually in dark markets or online pharmacies where buyers can leave a review just like Amazon or Yelp. This includes:
- Stolen or skimmed credit card data
- Research data such as medical research data on new drugs and therapies
- Proprietary trade secrets and formulas
- Blueprints for security plans for buildings and networks
- Medical records
- Financial records
- Intelligence reports
- Government secrets and investigations
- Counterfeit money, gold, jewelry and other expensive branded goods
- Fake IDs
- Guns and other weapons
- Sex and pornography
- Drugs both legal and illegal, including marijuana (cannabis); stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine; ecstasy, MDMA (Molly) and LSD; opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and OxyContin; and any prescription drugs normally found in a pharmacy like Adderall, Xanax or Valium.
Data suggests that almost 40 percent of the revenue from drug sales on the dark web is from marijuana. The next most popular drugs, making up about 30 percent of sales, are stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines. Followed closely behind are ecstasy-type drugs at around 20 percent.
The United States leads the world in the cryptomarket-share of drugs being sold on the dark web, followed by the UK and Australia.
Is it safe to buy drugs through the dark web?
Because people are anonymous on the dark web, many people are falsely lulled into a sense of security when they purchase medications or illicit drugs online. But there are lots of unforeseen risks associated with these purchases, stemming from:
- The lack of quality control
- The possibility for a drug or medication to be laced with something stronger, like fentanyl
- The cutting of drugs with cheaper alternatives
- The threat of retribution from a dissatisfied consumer
- The inability to visually inspect a drug prior to purchase
- The likelihood of getting ripped off
And although the dark web offers anonymity for its user base, someone can still be arrested for buying or selling drugs on the dark web, which can result in a federal drug trafficking offense due to the national and international nature of these transactions.
How can I tell if someone is using the dark web?
There are a few tactics someone should use to determine whether someone they know might be purchasing drugs or engaging in other illicit trades through the dark web:
- Search all devices they use for “Tor.” A search of this nature will turn up any software installed to help access the dark web.
- Keep an eye out for suspicious packages. If the recipient is defensive and secretive about the package, there may be something they are hiding, especially if packages arrive with regularity.
- Pay attention to money. How are they earning their money? How are they spending it? Do they have income or expenses that are unexplainable?
What should I do if I’m concerned?
- Stay calm until you have all the information. Accessing the dark web doesn’t necessarily mean anything illegal has happened.
- Have an open and honest conversation, and engage in ongoing dialogue about the risks and dangers of the internet in general.
- Set parental controls and privacy filters for younger users, and remove them as kids get older and demonstrate responsible behavior.
- Recognize the warning signs of drug use.
- Seek support from a professional who can provide a thorough assessment and recommendation for resources and support.