Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office released the state’s first report detailing how the internet and social media are used for illicit drug activity, as required by the fentanyl accountability law that passed the Colorado Legislature last year.
The report focuses mostly on social media, according to a news release from Weiser’s office, because the challenges social media poses with drug activity “have yet to be addressed by legislation and public policy.” It provides a series of recommendations for interventions that can be taken to combat the online illicit substance market.
“As innovative online services and platforms weave their way into nearly every aspect of our lives, they also threaten to fuel a dangerous killer – the increasing ease of access to deadly substances, including fentanyl,” Weiser said in a statement. “We are committed to confronting the painful and lethal challenges of fentanyl distribution in Colorado. That means we will use all tools at our disposal to address this crisis, including pressing the federal government to address the flow of such deadly drugs into our community and calling on social media companies to do more to restrict the distribution of this deadly substance through their platforms.”
The report makes several asks of social media companies when it comes to transparent reporting on their drug-activity policies, and it says the Colorado Legislature should consider a bill to require this. It also says social media companies should create a more uniform set of practices for responding to and preventing illicit drug activity.
According to Weiser’s introduction in the report, social media platforms’ “ubiquity, convenience and lack of regulation” make them a prime venue for drug distribution. He compared a young person’s ability to find drugs online to the ease with which they can order food for delivery.
“Our youth appear to be especially susceptible to fentanyl poisoning, as unsuspecting teens are uniquely vulnerable to taking what turn out to be counterfeit prescription pills containing lethal doses of fentanyl,” he said.
The report’s executive summary says fentanyl is the main driver of addiction and overdose in the country today and is the leading cause of preventable death among Americans age 18-45.
Because vast amounts of online data remain inaccessible, the report said the exact scope of the online illicit substance market is impossible to quantify. People are able to get away with selling drugs on social media through the use of coded messaging and marketing with special slang terms, along with hyperlinks and QR codes to avoid being removed by content moderation tools.
“Sellers and users alike have come to prefer the convenience and discretion afforded by transacting over social media, and they rely on the companies’ inability (or, in some cases, apparent unwillingness) to prevent drug activity on their platforms,” the report says.
Specific platforms make it easier for sellers. For example, Snapchat’s photos and messages disappear once they’ve been opened. The report also says sellers take advantage of multiple platforms, advertising on one and completing transactions on another to avoid being detected. This means any efforts to mitigate online drug traffic will need to be “considered broadly,” with particular attention given to the platforms with higher risks.
The 182-page report’s other recommendations include providing more resources to law enforcement dedicated to combating online drug distribution, increasing access to abuse treatment and harm reduction resources, federal oversight of social media platforms and legislation requiring increased transparency and access around social media data.