Social media platforms are increasingly becoming the settings of illegal drug transactions, including for teenagers who are unknowingly getting fentanyl-laced pills, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said.
“It’s no longer the guy on the corner selling the drugs. Now they got to the social media sites and the online platforms, because they have that anonymity,” Lt. Sean Hinkey with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department told KTLA.
This isn’t just happening in L.A. County.
In September, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about a sharp increase of fake pills containing fentanyl nationwide that are becoming available to anyone with a cellphone, including minors.
Teenagers have been a target for the illicit drug sales, with youths thinking they’re buying pharmaceutical grade drugs like Xanax, Oxycodone or Adderall, but actually end up consuming counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl, officials said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is around 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.
Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal.
A record 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year — and the growing prevalence of fentanyl is believed to be the main driver of the “alarming” increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Official said the fake pills are made to look like the branded drugs, from the pills’ size and color to their shape. This is triggering accidental fatal fentanyl overdoses.
“You’re truly putting your life in your own hands. We call it pill roulette,” Hinkey said.
Counterfeit pills are being seized in every U.S. state in “unprecedented” quantities, and lab testing has shown a dramatic rise in the number of pills containing a lethal amount of fentanyl, DEA officials said.
The lieutenant took KTLA on a walk-through of the Sheriff’s Department’s narcotics bureau evidence room, where dozens of boxes of seized drugs were stacked high.
“A lot of this is fentanyl, counterfeit pills including fentanyl,” Hinkey said. “A tremendous amount of narcotics is being seized on a yearly basis within Los Angeles County.”
One family’s story after 16-year-old overdoses
TV host Laura Berman and her husband Sam Chapman lost their 16-year-old son Sammy to an accidental overdose in February.
The boy had purchased what he thought was prescription medication, which was delivered right to his home.
“The worst day of my life,” Chapman told KTLA as he recounted what happened to his son. “I would rather it were me than him.”
Chapman said Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel called him to offer condolences right afterwards, but the father said he wants action, not apologies.
Chapman and his family are now fighting for increased safety features on Snapchat and other social media sites to help crack down on drug dealers.
In June, Chapman and dozens of other parents who lost children to fentanyl overdoses protested outside Snapchat’s offices in Santa Monica, urging the company to do more to protect its young online users.
The families stood outside, holding up bright yellow signs with photos of loved ones they lost, with the words “Snapchat is an accomplice to my murder.”
The response from social media companies
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram specifically called out Snapchat and TikTok for not doing enough to combat drug sales in an interview with the Washington Post.
Social media companies have repeatedly stressed that they’re working to address the problem.
In a statement to KTLA, Snapchat said it has launched new initiatives and in-app tools to help educate users on the dangers of fentanyl, made “significant” operational improvements to eradicate drug dealers from the platform and worked with law enforcement.
The company said it also has new “Parental Engagement Tools” forthcoming.
“We have a lot of safety protections baked into our platform, and we are working every day to make those safety protections stronger with new technology and policies,” Snapchat said in an email.
Facebook told KTLA its standards make it very clear that buying and selling drugs is not allowed on the platform.
“We don’t allow people to buy, sell or trade pharmaceutical or non-medical drugs on Facebook and Instagram,” Meta Company Spokesperson Avra Seigel said in a statement to KTLA. “We also partner with experts, policymakers, and organizations focused on battling the opioid crisis to help individuals and families struggling with addiction, including supporting efforts to break down the stigma that prevents so many from getting the help that they need.”