If I were to tell you that one in four young people see adverts from drug dealers on their social media feeds, you would probably be shocked. When people think about how drugs are sold, there is a tendency to think of gangs operating from street corners, much like in The Wire, but as society has become more technologically enabled, so have the drug markets. Research conducted by Volteface has revealed that mainstream social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook have become infiltrated by drug dealers who use the platforms to advertise, expand their network and build relationships with customers, much like legitimate businesses.

See this example of a Snapchat video advertising Cannabis:

Despite how blatant some of this activity is, it has been able to continue relatively unchallenged over the past few years and if you speak to young people about what they see on their social media feeds, as we did at Volteface, you’ll hear that for many of them these adverts are a normal part of their day to day lives. Of those who see drugs advertised on social media, three quarters see this content at least once a month.

A drugs “menu” offering different types of Cannabis, on Instagram.

For the police, this activity is exasperating as it makes a mockery of the law and undermines their efforts to tackle illicit drug markets. The responsibility to remove this content lies with the social media companies, who now have a statuary duty of care to keep their users safe, as outlined by the 2019 Online Harm White Paper. This was built on a premise recommended by the NSPCC, that social media platforms should be considered as essentially a public space, where children socialise, make friends and play, and its the job of the platforms to take reasonable steps to ensure their platforms are safe, much like a local playground or swimming pool would.

Undoubtedly, the companies could be doing more to meet these obligations, with a recent BBC investigation revealing that drug dealer accounts could be found in minutes just by searching common drug-related phrases –  there is clearly low hanging fruit that is not being taken down. However, the challenge that social media companies will come up against is that when drug markets are enforced they also evolve, dealers will adopt new strategies and coded language to circumvent these efforts.

The reason why these adverts have been appearing on social media feeds in the first place is because the police have not been successful in reducing the prevalence of drug dealing. The UK has a thriving drugs market and that uncomfortable reality has been thrust into the limelight.

A Snapchat competition offering drugs to the winner.

The government’s own independent review of illegal drugs has acknowledged this. The first stage, published in February 2020, concluded that “even if [all law enforcement] were sufficiently resourced it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in drug supply, given the resilience and flexibility of illicit drug markets.”

Even during lockdown, when there was an increased police presence on the streets and the general public were told to stay at home, the police were not able to disrupt drug supply. And as the market become increasingly contactless, with payments made online, products delivered by post and contact initiated on social media, it’s going to become even harder to police it.

To break this gridlock, the government must consider what it can do to tackle drug dealing at its source. Cannabis is the most widely accessible drug on social media, and if it were to be taken out of the illicit market and put into a legal, regulated setting, controls could be placed on access, safety and visibility.

Until we embrace new ideas, drug supply will continue to frustrate regulators and enforcers, and its young people who will bear the brunt of this inertia.

Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface and author of DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media.

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