Sale of illicit drugs on social media apps contributing to Colorado’s opioid crisis


Shane Ersland


The sale of illicit drugs on social media apps is augmenting Colorado’s opioid crisis, and staff from the state’s attorney general’s office have requested assistance from lawmakers. 

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Shalyn Kettering, counsel to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, discussed the issue during an Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee meeting last week. Kettering highlighted research done to compile a first-of-its-kind report that her office published last year.  

The report describes how the internet and social media platforms are used for illicit drug activity, and offers recommendations to address the flow of illicit drugs that often include deadly amounts of fentanyl. Kettering served as one of the report’s authors.

“The rise of social media has corresponded with the opioid crisis,” Kettering said. “The online market for illicit substances is huge. The availability of fentanyl and other illicit substances online is staggering.”

It is difficult to quantify the precise impact social media has on the illicit drug trade because those companies control their own data, and some don’t readily make it available, Kettering said. So report researchers talked to people involved with the state’s drug trade to get an idea of its impact. 

“We interviewed countless users, we talked with individuals impacted by this crisis, we talked extensively with law enforcement, (and) we talked to confidential informants to come to the conclusion that we came to in this report.”

— Kettering

The team asked a confidential informant how they would typically buy drugs, Kettering said. The informant logged on to a social media app called Kik, and typed in the searchwords “Denver” and “Boulder.” 

“He didn’t type in any reference to illicit substances,” Kettering said. “But what was returned was dozens of local drug buying and selling groups that are open to the public.”

Users can click on emojis in order to get connected to an illicit drug dealer, Kettering said.  

“A lot of these apps have content that disappears after 24 hours so you can send messages and those messages are [soon] gone,” she said. “These are primarily groups that are created by dealers themselves as a marketing tool. And it’s very difficult to keep up with these emojis.”

The team asked the people they were working with why they chose to buy drugs on social media, Kettering said, and 78 percent of those surveyed said it was more convenient. About 58 percent said it was faster, and 23 percent said it was due to the wide variety of drugs available on them. 

“There’s a better supply,” Kettering said. “There’s clear advantages to brokering drugs online as opposed to some of the dangers that come with seeking out drugs on the street or navigating the dark web.”

The team did not investigate the role the dark web plays in the market for illicit substances online, Kettering said. She described the dark web as a platform that cannot be accessed without the use of certain portals that require a lot of technical sophistication. 

“It’s sites that cannot be accessed through sites like Google. It’s highly unregulated and difficult to understand. It’s a huge source of illicit substances. That was outside of the scope of this report. We focused on things you can get by going on to Facebook and Kik, not things you need to use special technology tools to get. A significant portion of transactions occur online.”

— Kettering

Drug dealers often use a popular tactic in which they create a post that contains only images or videos, Kettering said. She referenced an image that featured a cat driving a car that included phrasing that the cat had “the blues,” which is a code word for oxycodone, she said. The image also indicated that the dealer was mobile and could deliver drugs, Kettering said.

“This is difficult content to find, catch, and remove,” she said. “Another tactic is using hyperlinks to redirect someone to another source of drug access. Another tactic is private encrypted messages. Dating apps were [also] a common way to purchase drugs.”

Social media companies are protected by several laws (including the Stored Communications Act) that they reference when they believe they are being forced to perform content regulation, however, Kettering said. They also cite First Amendment concerns around freedom of speech. And law enforcement requests for information mostly require a subpoena or court order.

“Within the confines of these legal restrictions, our office identified a series of recommendations we think may still have an impact on addressing this challenge,” Kettering said. “We believe companies should allocate resources to actually prevent and take action against illicit drug activity.”

Lawmakers could also mandate a multilateral cross platform approach to proactive content moderation that would require companies to work together, Kettering said. 

“Drug transactions often occur on many platforms at once. We believe a best practice would be these companies collaborating when there’s a law enforcement request, knowing that a transaction is not happening exclusively on their platform.”

— Kettering

Kettering also cited a need for social media companies to fully cooperate with law enforcement investigations, including responding to inquiries within a set amount of time, and providing data in a usable format. 

“Some of these best practices have the ability to be legislated, (whereas) others have to remain in the realm of best practices,” Kettering said. “One thing we think is actionable from a legislative standpoint is to require the disclosure of policies on illicit substance transactions and related enforcement data. We recognize this data is incomplete, but we certainly think policymakers need to know at least a ballpark of some of this information.

Ultimately this is a problem that results from the demand, so increasing investment in substance abuse treatment and harm reduction, specifically targeted at teens and young users, who are most likely to purchase drugs.”