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Purchasing marijuana on the internet has become as easy as ordering something off Amazon and having it delivered straight to your door. The illicit online drug market is moving from the dark web to our newsfeeds and stories on popular social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. In a study, about 1 in 4 young people reported seeing illegal drugs being advertised or sold on social media. The same study also found that many of these people have made an illicit purchase after seeing advertising for marijuana on social media, believing it is safer than buying them off the streets or in a night club.
Dealers will typically post videos, photos, and statuses showing what products they have available, the price and quantity, and when they are available for business. Buyers can also search for hashtags like #vapecartsforsale and thousands of results will appear with pictures of THC cartridges. In many cases, people will “assess the quality” of these drugs by what they see in pictures or the number of followers and comments the seller has on their account. Those interested in buying can contact the dealer by commenting, sending a direct message on Instagram or through private messaging apps such as Whatsapp or Wickr. Social media apps provide the platform to connect buyers and sellers, and then deals take place using encrypted communication services.
Drug dealers can now use more aggressive marketing tactics and reach out to a new, younger, audience that may not have any personal connections to dealers in their social circles. Instagram has become the favorite place for people to promote both legal and illicit marijuana products because of its user friendliness, popularity among young people, and the emphasis on photos and videos. A study that surveyed participants across the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US found that while obtaining drugs through friends is typically preferred, apps are becoming a more popular option. Unfortunately, buyers are putting themselves at risk for personal safety and holding on to a “false security” that they are escaping law enforcement. Experts are now saying it is crucial and urgent to educate young people about the risks and dangers of purchasing illicit marijuana products off social media. Advertising Marijuana on social media can put both the seller and buyer at risk.
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Research shows that people are more inclined to buy illicit weed from social media apps due to the convenience of setting up a transaction, competitive pricing, and a false sense of security. Although many states across the U.S. have legalized the market for recreational cannabis, plenty of users continue to purchase through the black market. The ease and anonymity of using social media apps is also what leads to many buyers getting scammed. Often, sellers will request money to be transferred through a payment app before they send out a product but, in almost every case, no drugs arrive, and the money is lost.
An even greater risk of purchasing illicit cannabis products online is consuming unlicensed, unregulated, and most likely counterfeit THC vape pens, edibles, and cannabis flower. The recent epidemic of severe lung illnesses in teens is linked to vape pens, the majority of which involve bootleg THC oils. According to the CDC, at least 60 people have died and nearly 2,700 others have been hospitalized since last year because of issues caused by vaping. Many of the vape carts being sold on social media feature branded packaging that make them look like they come from a legal dispensary but, are in fact bootleg cartridges containing contaminants such as hydrogen cyanide and vitamin E acetate, a cutting agent that is likely linked to most vape-related illnesses.
The legalization of Marijuana products for both medical and recreational use has become more popular throughout the country but, even in legal states, the black market continues to grow. People in states that sell legal cannabis products still prefer purchasing from illicit dealers because it is cheaper, and some claim the quality is better. Purchasing cannabis products from illicit vendors is still illegal in states that allow recreational use, and both the buyer and the seller can get arrested if caught. The federal government was able to use Instagram to arrest over 350 drug dealers and seize 7 million dollars within just one year. These kinds of drug-related arrests may result in more jail time than a classic face-to-face drug exchange due to the amount of digital evidence that exists online, even if those transactions were not directly observed. Researchers from the University of Rochester have even developed an algorithm that can scan through millions of Instagram posts, identify potential drug dealers, and pass the suspect’s information on to authorities.
The very system being exploited by drug dealers is the one being used by police officers and investigators to arrest them. It is a common misconception that apps like Snapchat or Whatsapp are totally secured and data cannot be accessed by law enforcement. Researchers actually found that unopened Snapchat “snaps” are held on servers and can be handed over based on a search warrant. Instagram shares user content and information with their parent company, Facebook, and their third-part advertisers. Even Whatsapp, which is where most transactions are coordinated, allows information to be shared within Facebook. One survey showed that more than 80% of law enforcement officials said social media is a valuable tool for “crime-fighting” and “catfishing,” or creating fake profiles to entrap and bust illicit weed sellers and buyers.
Instagram’s official policy prohibits using the platform to advertise or sell any marijuana products whether they are licensed or unlicensed. According to their head of public policy, Karina Newton, the company uses special software to help identify and delete vaping-related or illicit weed content from the platform, saying it is able to find 95% of the content before it’s even reported. In December of 2019 the company, along with parent company Facebook, stated they will no longer allow influencers to promote vaping, tobacco products, or weapons on its platform using “branded content.” It is the first time the company is restricting the types of items that can be promoted for branded content but hope this will help decrease the number of illicit products being advertised and sold on the app. Instagram says it has a long, well-established relationship with law enforcement, and will continue to work closely with them to improve detection and removal of illegal material on its platform.
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