As the United States faces its deadliest overdose crisis to date, a national crime-prevention organisation is urging the Justice Department to crack down on the role of social media in the spread of fentanyl, the drug largely responsible for a troubling spike in overdose deaths among teenagers.
The National Crime Prevention Council demanded an investigation in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday. The organisation best known for its advertisements featuring McGruff the Crime Dog is particularly concerned about the sale of fake pills laced with fentanyl on Snapchat, a popular platform among teenagers.
“Drug dealers are selling lethal products using American innovation,” executive director Paul DelPonte wrote. “Some of these deaths are attributable to social media platforms.”
Overdose deaths in the United States reached a new high last year, with one death occurring every five minutes on average. According to monthly median data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths among teens aged 10 to 19 increased 109% between 2019 and 2021. According to the report released last week, fentanyl was involved in 84% of those deaths.
Dealers use multiple social media and money transfer platforms, sometimes in the same transaction, but Snapchat’s encrypted technology and disappearing messages make it particularly difficult to catch dealers, according to DelPonte.
Snapchat’s parent company, for its part, stated that it has taken significant steps to improve platform safety and has seen a decrease in user reports about drug sales over the past year. It also supports a new bill that would require social media companies to report drug activity.
According to Jennifer Stout, Snap’s vice president of global public policy, the company uses technology to identify and remove dealers as well as to assist police investigations. “We will do everything possible to address this national crisis,” she said in a statement.
Nonetheless, when grieving families contact DelPonte’s group for assistance, Snapchat is the most frequently mentioned platform.
Amy Neville, whose son Alex was 14 when he bought a pill he thought was Oxycontin through the platform in June 2020, was among those parents. The boy had just informed his parents about his drug experimentation, and they were about to admit him to treatment.
He got his hair cut, went to lunch with his father, and hung out with friends one day. He went to his room after returning to the family’s home in Orange County, California, and at some point took the pill that ended his life.
“The next morning, I discovered him in his bed. “The rest is insane,” Amy Neville stated. “After he died, we asked ourselves, ‘How did this happen?’ We thought we were prepared.”
His family was unaware of the dangers of fentanyl, which can be lethal in amounts as small as the tip of a pencil, according to federal authorities. In the years since her son’s death, Neville has received a tragic education. She has also heard from more families whose children died of overdoses after purchasing pills through Snapchat, often for less than $25.
Neville, who describes Snap’s recent changes as “a little Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” is also a plaintiff in a California lawsuit against the company. The lawsuit names several teens and young adults who died as a result of accidental overdoses across the country.
It was filed by the Social Media Victims Law Center, which is currently representing 28 families whose children purchased counterfeit pills on Snapchat. According to founding attorney Matthew Bergman, the platform is the only place where their clients’ children have received fake or lethal pills.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has labelled fentanyl the “deadliest drug threat confronting this country,” and Administrator Anne Milgram has stated that social media apps are the “perfect drug delivery tool” in a speech in which she also mentioned platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
Ed Ternan became an activist after his son died at the age of 22 from a single fentanyl-laced pill that he mistook for Percocet. He claims Snapchat has taken more action than other platforms since they became aware of the problem in early 2021. However, he would prefer that the government collaborate with companies to prosecute dealers rather than launch a corporate investigation.
“If the carrot is working, the stick becomes counterproductive at some point,” said Ternan, who serves on Snap’s safety board. “I want to prevent future deaths. And we do so through education and collaboration with social media companies.”
While the most recent overdose death data shows some encouraging signs, the DEA reported this week that the number of fentanyl-laced pills seized in the United States has more than doubled this year. According to authorities, the drug is primarily produced in illegal labs in Mexico using precursor chemicals purchased from China.
According to Jim Carroll, a former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy who also serves as an unpaid member of Snap’s safety board, social media today holds a similar place to phones and beepers in years past.
There is no data on how much fentanyl is trafficked through social media sites, he said, but Snapchat’s enormous popularity among younger people may help explain why dealers use the site and why there are more deaths associated with the platform.
“You can’t just go after the phone company because that’s the mode of communication,” he said. Nonetheless, “all of these social media companies must do more.”