Not all that long ago, scoring drugs meant visiting shady parts of town, forging unlikely relationships and generally finding yourself in sketchy situations. More than anything, getting drugs was a real hassle. According to a recent article in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, however, we’re living in a time where that’s no longer the case. The conveniences of the Internet now carry a steep tradeoff. Being online doesn’t just mean free overnight shipping on purchases—it means drug addiction is essentially just one click away. Social media sites like Grindr, Tinder and even Facebook have turned dope dealing completely on its head, rivaling seedy neighborhoods for their ability to connect people—especially teenagers—to drugs.
The Dark Side of Instagram
Where I grew up in Midwestern Ohio, you had to know somebody who knew somebody who sort-of knew somebody to get anything stronger than an ibuprofen. It was all whispered agreements, furtive text messages and exchanges of money and product in parking lots. Thanks to the Internet, though, scoring hard drugs is night and day from where it used to be. Leaving messages for people and handshake agreements seem like ancient history. Money can be secretly transferred and drugs can be delivered to doorsteps—without someone even leaving their house. “Social media is the ultimate oxymoron,” Louise Stanger, a California social worker, observed in the article. “You can score like an Olympian with the use of social media connecting with friends, researching study topics, connecting across the globe, and you can fall like Hades using it to score and sell dope and hook up with all the wrong folks.”
Social workers like Stanger caution parents that drug gateways are hidden in plain sight on millions of smartphone screens. Instagram can pretty up any photograph with ready-made filters as much as it can easily remove the filter between people looking for drugs. “Parents must be vigilant in their communication with their teens, and teens must beware of the challenges a digital age faces,” Stanger warned in the article. Hashtags like “#MDMA” or “#420” become beacons for teens looking for drugs nearby. In fact, the article notes that easy access to drugs ranks among parents’ biggest challenges these days, which also include “how to tame cyberbullying and keep sexual predators from their children.” When teenagers turn on their smartphone or tablet, they’re automatically (and dramatically) closer to drugs in a way that would’ve seemed like science fiction back when I was in high school.
Going “Deep” for Drugs
Beyond the mainstream, anybody can get drugs online via secret-sharing apps like Whisper or apps actually designed to connect users to buyers—but nothing promises as much anonymity as the “dark web.” If that name is not ominous enough, it also goes by the “deep net” or the “hidden web.” The dark web is like a Bizarro version of the World Wide Web. It looks and feels like the Internet you’re used to, with a few notable exceptions. For one, with the help of special software like the Tor browser, someone can access hundreds of sites that they wouldn’t ordinarily find. The sites you find there can’t be reached via Safari or Internet Explorer. Most are invite-only or require special access. Also, let’s talk about the crazy things you can find on the dark web for a second. American passports? Check. Stolen credit numbers? No problem. Russian AK-47s? You got it. Drugs kind of seem quaint compared to everything else you can get. “Almost any drug in existence, both illegal and prescription, can be purchased from vendors on the dark web,” one criminal justice professor noted in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal article.
What’s worse is that getting your hands on drugs via the dark web isn’t anything new. Darknet drugs have been around for nearly a full decade. It’s only gaining popularity, too, growing into “a billion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of customers worldwide” in the past five years alone. Part of the reason it’s so incredibly powerful is because of the anonymity it provides. Whenever you use a browser like Tor, “it redirects your IP address so there is no way to track your presence or the dealer websites so you can cruise the darknet with almost absolute anonymity.”
Also, money doesn’t actually exchange hands via the dark web. It’s all run on something called bitcoin. It’s an online currency that is all but impossible to trace back to the original source. Created by “Satoshi Nakamato” (likely a name for many different people) in 2008, Bitcoin is the backbone of the illicit drug market. According to a recent report from the non-profile research group RAND Europe, “the number of transactions of illicit drugs…has tripled, with revenues doubling.” The US currently ranks the highest in drug sales (35.9% overall), with the UK a distant second (16.1%). Perhaps what’s more disturbing is that in an age of customer-service focused commerce, most every illicit drug website bears more than a passing resemblance to, say, Amazon. And no different than a seller on eBay, every drug dealer is ranked by the quality of their product, consistency and delivery time.
What Can Parents Do?
“Selling drugs on the internet is as illegal as it would be if you were selling them on the street,” Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor and former Maryland cop, warned in the article. “This is nothing to be playing around with and another example for why parents need to pay attention to what their kids are doing on social networking sites.” Scott Spackey, a drug and addiction expert, goes a step further. He says that “60 percent of the under-30 crowd that he interacts with each week in counseling sessions know about the darknet, the Amazon of all things illicit.” He goes on to suggest that about half of the young people who know about the deep web actually use it.
The article advises that parents follow several basic steps to stay one step ahead of drug addiction with their children. It all starts with open, clear communication about the dangers of drugs—but it certainly doesn’t end there. Parents should keep their teens’ social media privacy settings at their highest, so they can’t connect with people you don’t know. Also, as the article suggests: “If your teen is experiencing signs of substance abuse, cancel their phone. You could be inadvertently paying for their drug dealer.” Parents will probably never be able to prevent kids from experimenting with drugs. The good news is that as long as they are paying for the phone and the Internet, they may actually have more control now than they did when the only way to score dope was in a dark parking lot.
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