As the UK black market in drugs continues to thrive, the government has been urged to force Instagram and Snapchat to report drug dealers using their platforms to the police. In a relatively new phenomenon, drug dealers are operating openly and selling everything from cannabis to cocaine on platforms commonly used by young people.

The dealers post pictures and videos to market drugs and encourage users to contact them on encrypted messaging services. One in four young people (24%) see drugs advertised in this way, according to a new report published today by advocacy organisation Volteface. The most commonly seen drug is cannabis.

The new Volteface report, titled “DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media”, examines social media’s role in facilitating drug dealing in the UK, and the impact that this is having on young people. It draws on new nationally representative polling data of 2,006 young people aged 16-to-24 years old, conducted for Volteface by Survation; an observational trawl of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram; interviews with police and youth workers; and focus groups with children.

To anyone with no knowledge and experience of the drug market, the brazen advertising of drugs on social media is shocking. However, this really is a natural evolution of a thriving market serving a vast number of consumers in an environment of informal decriminalisation.

On paper, UK drug laws are strict, but enforcement across the country is inconsistent to say the least. For years, there have been instances of drug dealers handing out business cards and running business models that emulate legal delivery services. Now that they have progressed to advertising openly on social media it’s absurd to imagine we are currently pursuing a “war on drugs”.

For example, in Leeds there is a drug dealing operation covering the entire city that operates from one central phone number. The user calls this phone number and speaks to what is essentially an “operator”. The user gives the operator his whereabouts and the operator puts them in touch with a dealer serving that area. The phone number used in Leeds has been the same for 11 years at the very least. With this kind of decriminalisation, you get the worst of both worlds.

Of course, drug dealers still face arrest and we see drug busts publicised as a façade to make it seem as if the drug war is still being waged. At the same time, it’s also true that users caught in possession rarely face charges and are generally referred for treatment instead. Dealers operate so openly in many cities that police could close down the market overnight if they made a concerted effort, but they don’t.

Anyone who decides they want to obtain drugs in Britain can do so now more easily than ever and the risk of arrest is small. Volteface’s research shows that social media has made it even easier for young people in particular to buy drugs. Dealers can be accessed through platforms without young people needing to have pre-existing connections with drug dealers, or to have access to the dark web.

The most sought-after drug is cannabis (63% of those surveyed by Volteface saw cannabis being advertised on social media, making it the most commonly seen drug advertised), but in many cases the dealer will also sell cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA and other higher-class drugs. This is the gateway effect in action and in a black market there is no regulation of ingredients or protection for young people.

Along with the full-blown marketing strategies of social media drug dealers, some drugs are even sold in “branded” packaging and given various brand names. The market operates so freely its mimicking a legal market. Testimonies within the Volteface report reveal that seeing drugs advertised on social media normalises drug use, particularly among young people. Social media platforms provide opportunities for dealers to build trust with potential customers, through the use of reviews and positive comments.

The current model of informal decriminalisation that operates inconsistently across the country is unsustainable and harmful. It’s allowing a “wild west” black market to thrive. There are three rational options from here: enforce the drug laws, change them or repeal and replace them. We must either start arresting users and dealers and charging them to deter use. Go for a formal decriminalisation model. Or open a regulated, legal market. Those are the only points of discussion.

The Volteface report recommends that since cannabis is the most widely-available drug on social media, taking the cannabis market out of the hands of criminals and into a legal regulated framework, through legalisation, is the most effective policy. If there is no will from the government and the public to enforce current laws than this seems a rational step.

To clamp down on the advertisement of illegal drugs on social media the report recommends introducing a regulatory requirement for social media companies to monitor activity on their sites to ensure that they are aware of how language, emojis and design features may be used to facilitate drug dealing. This information, along with accounts suspected of drug dealing, should then be shared with the police.

The report makes a number of sensible recommendations that should begin to address the dangers of the social media drug market. There is, however, a far wider debate to be had about what to do about the booming black market in drugs in Britain. The debate is a political minefield and will need to transcend party politics if positive progress is to be made.