- Drug dealers are using Snapchat and Instagram to find customers, despite rules against it.
- Insider found two dozen fentanyl-related deaths in which Snapchat apparently played a role in the transaction.
- Instagram blamed a technical bug for failing to remove dozens of flagged accounts promoting pills.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
One of the last acts in Devin Norring’s short life took place on Snapchat.
The 19-year-old in Hastings, Minnesota, connected with a drug dealer on the social-media app last year and arranged to buy a prescription pain pill. But the pill that the dealer delivered was packed with fentanyl, an opiate so powerful that Norring died shortly after taking it.
The tragedy is part of a painful pattern that has repeated itself over the past year, spread by the immediacy and friction-free ease that teenagers expect in an age of on-demand apps. But, unlike the repercussions of posting an ill-advised video or regrettable comment on Snapchat, the consequences for teens buying pills through social media can be irreversible.
In Los Angeles and small-town Minnesota, in famous families and blue-collar ones, a drug 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine is killing people at a historic rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The transactions are sometimes being arranged via social media to home-bound young people.
“I would say 80% of the people I know who have lost children to fentanyl poisoning say their child bought the drugs on Snapchat,” said Jaime Puerta, whose 16-year-old son, Daniel, died in April 2020 of fentanyl poisoning.
Why, the families want to know, can’t law enforcement and social media crack down on blatant public fentanyl sales before more young people die? The answer, experts say, is a devastating combination of counterfeit pills and consumer technology that has “sped up the danger” of young people’s drug use – and which has left companies, law enforcement and health experts scrambling to catch up.
“These 14- and 15-year-old kids are clueless about what they’re doing,” Lisa Smittcamp, the district attorney in Fresno, California, told Insider. “That’s the danger of the Snapchat drug-delivery thing. The first time they use it, they could die.”
When Dr. Laura Berman, a famous sex therapist, told the world in February that her son had died of fentanyl poisoning after connecting with a dealer on Snapchat, many Americans were stunned by the tragedy. But an Insider investigation has discovered that the story is all too familiar.
Insider found two dozen fentanyl deaths in which the dealer used Snapchat to sell drugs, according to court records, news reports, and parents’ accounts from 2020 and 2021. And a review by Insider found that Instagram repeatedly failed to take down accounts touting illegal pills for sale after users had flagged them – an oversight that the Facebook-owned company blamed on a bug.
Snapchat said it is ramping up efforts to address the fentanyl epidemic on multiple fronts, and Instagram said it will enforce policies banning drug sales.
But for many affected families, the social apps make it too easy for teens to buy fentanyl and don’t help enough after tragedy strikes. “There are thousands of families like ours,” says Bridgette Norring, the Minnesota mom who lost her son Devin last year.
As easy as using the map
Social-media companies have rules forbidding drug sales on their platforms, of course. But that hasn’t stopped the practice. A cursory visit to Instagram reveals a glut of accounts extolling the consumption and touting the availability of all manner of pills, including Xanax, Percocet, and OxyContin – and often listing a Snapchat handle for arranging deals.
Some accounts post videos of pills in their Snapchat and Instagram stories and use slang for drugs in their usernames. Interested buyers, they indicate, can reach out directly to these accounts through the apps’ built-in messaging if they want to arrange transactions.
Often, parents and law enforcement told Insider, the Instagram accounts send buyers to Snapchat accounts, where the actual transactions are arranged through the app’s disappearing messages. Snapchat’s mapping location feature – an especially popular feature among teens – is an ideal tool for buyers and sellers to find each other, social-media experts and law enforcement say. The user-location map, which users must agree to turn on, makes it a cinch to arrange a rendezvous spot or to have the dealer deliver the drugs straight to a buyer’s doorstep, the experts say.
Snapchat said it is prioritizing safety, ramping up artificial-intelligence tools to spot pills for sale, blocking usernames and hashtags that include drug terms, empowering community volunteers and family-safety groups, and improving how it works with law enforcement in an effort to address fentanyl and other drugs for sale on its platform. The company urges users to report any illegal activity on its platform.
“Our deepest sympathies are with the parents and families who have lost loved ones to the terrifying fentanyl epidemic. We are committed to working with law enforcement in all instances where Snapchat is used for illegal purposes,” the company said in a written statement provided to Insider.
“We try to be as proactive as possible in detecting, preventing and eradicating this type of abuse – but we know drug dealers are constantly evolving how they try to evade the rules on many platforms. We are constantly improving our capabilities to fight this illegal activity, including deploying machine learning and proactive detection tools, and to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs in an effort to save lives.”
Yet for a mother in California whose son died of fentanyl poisoning in September, the process of reporting a dealer on Snapchat to law enforcement felt maddeningly futile. Detectives told her several times they were waiting for Snapchat to respond to a search warrant for information related to their investigation of the dealer. After months Snapchat responded that the search warrant lacked information, and police filed another request last month, she said. Meanwhile, the Snapchat account apparently belonging to the dealer remained active. Snapchat investigated and shut down the account after it was reported by Insider. The mother requested anonymity for safety reasons. Insider knows her identity.
In Los Angeles, Jaime Puerta and other parents who lost children to fentanyl gathered outside a federal building in February to urge greater attention to the issue of counterfeit pills killing kids with lethal amounts of fentanyl. “It’s wiping out part of a generation so fast, they don’t even have time to become addicts,” Puerta said. “It’s just leveling them.”
Instagram cited a ‘bug’ as the reason pill-pushing accounts aren’t suspended
Instagram also struggles to address posts and accounts hawking fentanyl. Over the course of two months, parents and Insider reported 50 accounts posting pictures of prescription pain pills – some with the names of the drugs in the account name – through Instagram’s mobile and desktop apps. On 40 of the accounts, comments listed social-media accounts and websites, which law enforcement and social-media experts told Insider are used to sell the drugs.
While it did remove eight posts, Instagram did not initially suspend any of the 50 accounts – some with fentanyl, Xanax, and Percocet in their names – reported through its app. In 37 cases, the company responded to the reports that it had reviewed an account or post and found that “it doesn’t go against our Community Guidelines,” which prohibit illegal drug sales.
In an email, a spokesperson for the company said automated responses dismissing the reports were “due to a bug,” or technical error, which had been resolved. Insider submitted 10 reports of accounts posting pills after the company said the bug had been fixed, and six of the 10 accounts were removed.
In a statement, the company said: “We prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell, or trade non-medical drugs and pharmaceutical drugs for violating our regulated goods policies. We disabled all other accounts linked to the Instagram profiles reported, which violated the same policy.” But at press time, 39 of the 50 accounts previously reported by parents and Insider through the app remained online, and the company had not commented about the status of any other drugs-related accounts users had reported before the bug had been fixed.
Fentanyl deaths are skyrocketing
Any delay in addressing the solicitation of illegal drugs on the social platforms could be deadly at a time when counterfeit pills packed with fentanyl are being pumped into the US. It’s easier and cheaper to make fake pills using fentanyl – a highly addictive opioid – than to make actual knock-offs of prescription drugs like Percocet or Xanax, DEA agents and prosecutors said. Made recklessly in illegal labs, the fentanyl pills are often far stronger than the buyer realizes.
“We are seeing overdoses everywhere,” said Benny Ortiz, a 23-year DEA officer who has never seen a drug epidemic move with such deadly speed. “This isn’t an upper-class problem, a lower-class problem, or a problem of any ethnic group. It’s an American problem.”
More than 36,000 people died from fentanyl and related synthetic opioids in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the first half of 2020, those numbers were up nationally 38%. In Western states, fentanyl deaths are up 98%.
“It’s typically one pill,” said Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist and attorney who works with families and local law enforcement on internet safety issues.
Counterfeit pills made in Mexico are “flooding the market” with fentanyl that young people are ingesting, believing the pills are Xanax, Percocet, and other milder substances, Strohman says. The fake pills are killing “kids in a pandemic who don’t even know what they’re getting into,” she says.
Caleb Banta-Green, the principal research scientist at the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said the combination of social media and fentanyl has “sped up the danger” opioids cause.
In the past, becoming an opioid addict took time and effort. “The market for a black, sticky substance like heroin that you have to drive into a bad part of town to buy, then cook and inject with a needle is pretty small,” Banta-Green said. “Pills look safer.”
Buying pills on social media that are stronger than heroin and having them delivered gets naive young people “into trouble quickly,” he said.
“A lot of their drug purchases happen via the internet and Snapchat, not street sales, so they’re not getting picked up by police,” Banta-Green said in a February interview. Banta-Green found that in the spring of 2017, Washington had 18 fentanyl overdoses. In the spring of 2020, it had 171.
‘Dealers are posting pics in the stories for an hour’
One thing everyone agrees on is that chasing fentanyl dealers down on lightning-fast social media with slow-moving subpoenas and law-enforcement paperwork is not an easy task.
“Dealers are posting pics in the stories for an hour” on Snapchat, Strohman said. “You can’t really trace that.” Filing search warrants to inspect social-media posts, waiting for access, going through posts, submitting them as evidence, and prosecuting cases can take years. “There’s so much paperwork from a legal perspective that they can’t catch up.”
Dealers evade detection by temporarily posting photos of drugs and using emojis and code words rather than mentioning drugs by name. When social-media companies do shut down accounts for dealing drugs, new accounts can go online immediately.
“On Snapchat it’s so easy to open multiple accounts” that when dealers’ accounts are shut down, they can simply pivot to another one. “Snapchat should be held liable,” Strohman said. “The platform is so irresponsible.” Snapchat’s Terms of Service prohibit the creation of multiple accounts, a spokesperson said.
Smittcamp, the Fresno district attorney, is already handling several dozens of fentanyl deaths in her Central California city from the first three months of 2021, some with apparent ties to Snapchat. She said law enforcement struggles to prosecute cases of drug-dealing on Snapchat because messages disappear and users can create multiple accounts. “Snapchat may have had good intentions, but they have provided an opportunity for evil,” she said.
Snapchat said some account information can be retrieved by law enforcement and that it works closely with police when authorities request information in an investigation and discloses information immediately when someone’s life or safety are at risk, following legal and privacy guidelines.
After a Snapchat message has been opened by all recipients, the content is permanently deleted and unavailable, the company said. A post to a user’s story – a message that all of their followers can view – is visible for up to 24 hours, and then is usually permanently deleted. Content that users save can be available for longer.
Some parents’ organizations give Snapchat credit when it comes to safety. Stephen Balkam, CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, which receives funding from Snapchat and other social-media platforms, said in some ways Snapchat might be safer than other platforms. “You have to know someone to connect,” he said. “It doesn’t have a public-facing side like Facebook and others.” He said that should be kept in mind when critics fault Snapchat for its disappearing messages, which can make it harder to preserve records.
And some healthcare professionals believe social media could also be harnessed to help fight the opioid epidemic. A doctor researching opioid abuse at the National Institutes of Health wrote in 2017 that Snapchat’s map function could potentially be used to prevent overdose deaths by quickly showing the location of an emergency to Snapchat friends nearby.
‘We feel lost between law enforcement and social-media platforms’
The nonprofit advocacy group Organization for Social Media Safety is pushing for change at Snapchat and elsewhere. “We will almost certainly be working on legislation,” CEO Marc Berkman said. “Snapchat as a platform is really set up to enable this behavior, and dealers are able to operate there. We want to change that.”
In the meantime, a growing group of parents are meeting one another, united in their grief and demands for action and accountability.
Berman, the LA therapist whose son died in February, described a common frustration among families she has been in touch with. “We feel lost between law enforcement and social-media platforms, which are not working together while our children are dying.”
Snapchat said the company is “actively assisting the Santa Monica Police Department with their investigation, to help track down the perpetrator” in Berman’s case. Santa Monica police did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment but told the “True Crime Daily” podcast in March that Snapchat has cooperated fully and continues to do so.
After Amy Neville’s 14-year-old son, Alexander, died of fentanyl poisoning after taking a counterfeit pill, another Southern California mom reached out to her. Her son died the same way, the mom said, and his phone showed their sons appeared to have the same drug dealer, whom they connected with on Snapchat. In saved Snapchat posts reviewed by Insider, a user who is presumably the dealer discussed a third person’s fatal overdose, denying he was to blame.
“It’s infuriating,” said Neville, who has worked to help other families since her son died in June. “If our kids were gathering at a skate park where dealers sold them poison drugs, we would shut it down. This is the skate park during COVID. Why do we treat Snapchat any differently?”