Teens have easier access to drugs as illegal trade booms on social media

Last winter, Megan McIntosh found her 18-year-old son Chase unconscious after she said he tried the birth control pill. He died a little over a month later, most likely from a pill laced with fentanyl from an unknown source.

The Macintosh turned to his social media for answers. Looking at her son’s Snapchat, she said, she saw bags of cereal and mushrooms. “I felt really helpless because there was nothing I could really do when I saw how widespread it was, and how many people were on its feed,” she said.

The drug trade thrives on social media, according to Kathleen Miles, who works at the Center for Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. “I think social media can be great, but it also has a really dark side,” Miles said.

With fentanyl ubiquitous, the risks are often fatal. The United States recorded more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in a 12-month period for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded in a year.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has warned of an alarming increase in the availability and deadly force of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In her experience, Miles said teens on social media are two degrees apart from a drug dealer.

CBS News asked Miles to create two fake profiles via Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, claiming they were 18, but publicly stating that they were high school students.

Someone was actively searching for drugs and found a clear dealer within 48 hours.

The second account used different hashtags like #depress, #sad, and #anxiety. While the three social media platforms provided some mental health resources, posts about marijuana and cigarettes also appeared on Instagram.

“By day three, on Instagram, we were completely immersed in the drug culture,” Miles said. For her, this culminated in an image of someone who appears to be sniffing cocaine. Miles added that technology companies bear the responsibility. “Because they are irresponsible, they are not making the protective barriers necessary to keep our children safe.”

Snapchat told CBS News that it was “determined to play its part in stamping out drug sales.” Instagram said it would “continue to make improvements” to keep young people safe. According to a recent quarterly transparency report, TikTok removed nearly 96% of drug-related videos within 24 hours. The three companies said they are using technology to proactively remove such content.

Macintosh has a message for other parents after her son’s death: “He was my baby. It could be your son,” she said. Macintosh thinks it’s all about this approach. “Let’s have an honest conversation about why, how and what we need to do as a family to keep you safe and happy.”

The full data from Snapchat and Meta is below:

“The tragic drug epidemic requires urgent action and we are determined to do our part to eliminate drug sales on Snapchat. We have raised awareness of the dangers of counterfeit pills infused with fentanyl directly into our app to inform young people of the deadly consequences. We use the latest technology including machine learning tools to discover drug-related content and proactively remove it on Snapchat We also use third-party detection tools to scan other platforms where drug dealers may attempt to contact Snapchat users We work with law enforcement and partner with parent groups, safety organizations, and experts who report on all of these practices, and we constantly evaluate Where can we continue to strengthen our work to combat this illegal activity.” Snapchat Spokesperson

“We do not allow the sale of illegal drugs on Instagram. As a result of the technology we developed to proactively find and remove this content, we now remove over 96% of it before it is reported. We will continue to make improvements to keep people safe on Instagram, especially the youngest members of our community.”- Meta spokesperson


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