WASHINGTON – As the US grapples with its deadliest overdose crisis yet, a national crime prevention group is urging the Justice Department to curb social media’s role in the spread of fentanyl, the drug largely driving a worrying rise in teenage overdose deaths.
The National Crime Prevention Council sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday, calling for an investigation. The group, known for McGruff the Crime Dog ads, is particularly concerned about the sale of fake fentanyl-laced pills on Snapchat, a popular platform among teenagers.
“Drug dealers use American innovations to sell deadly products,” wrote executive director Paul DePonte. “Social media platforms bear some responsibility for these deaths.”
Overdose deaths in the United States beat a record For the past year, there has been an average of one death every five minutes in the United States monthly median data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of these deaths, 84%, were due to fentanyl, according to the report released last week.
Traders use many social media and money exchange platforms, sometimes in the same transactions, but Snapchat’s encrypted technology and disappearing messages make it particularly difficult to catch traders, DePonte said.
The Justice Department did not comment on the letter.
For its part, Snapchat’s parent company said it has taken significant steps to improve security on the platform and has seen user reports of drug sales fall from over 23% last year to 3.3% last month. It also backs a new bill to strengthen reporting of drug activity by social media companies.
Jennifer Stout, Snap’s vice president of global public policy, said the company uses technology to identify and remove merchants and assist in law enforcement investigations. “We will continue to do everything we can to resolve this national crisis,” she said in a statement.
Still, Snapchat is the platform most often mentioned by grieving families when asking his group for help, DePonte said.
Those parents included Amy Neville, whose son Alex was 14 when he bought what he believed to be Oxycontin via the platform in June 2020. The boy had just told his parents about his experiments with drugs and they wanted him treated.
One day he got his hair cut, went to lunch with his father and met friends. After returning to the family home in Orange County, California, he went to his room and at one point took the pill that ended his life.
“The next morning I found him in his bed. The rest is insane,” said Amy Neville. “After he died, we asked ourselves, ‘How did this happen?’ We thought we were prepared.’”
His family knew little about fentanyl, which federal authorities say can be deadly in amounts smaller than the tip of a pencil. Neville has received a tragic education in the years since her son’s death, and has also heard about more families whose children have died from overdoses after buying pills through Snapchat, often for less than $25.
Neville, who calls Snap’s recent changes “a small band-aid on a gash,” is also part of a California lawsuit against the company. The lawsuit, naming several teenagers and young adults across the country who have died after accidental drug overdoses, was filed by the Social Media Victims Law Center, which now represents 28 families whose children bought fake pills through Snapchat. Founding attorney Matthew Bergman said the platform was the only one where her client’s children were given fake or deadly pills.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has called fentanyl “this country’s deadliest drug threat,” and Administrator Anne Milgram, in a speech that also included platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, said social media apps are the “perfect tool.” for drug administration”. .
Ed Ternan became an activist after his son died at age 22 from taking a single fentanyl-laced pill he thought was Percocet. He said he’s seen more action from Snapchat than other platforms since they became aware of the issue in early 2021. But he would rather see the government work with companies to prosecute traders than launch a corporate probe.
“When the carrot works, at some point the stick becomes counterproductive,” said Ternan, who serves on Snap’s security committee. “I want to prevent future deaths. And we do this with awareness and in partnership with the social media companies.”
While the latest overdose death data has some encouraging signs, the number of fentanyl-laced pills seized in the US has more than doubled this year, the DEA said this week. The drug is largely manufactured in illegal labs in Mexico, with precursor chemicals being bought from China, authorities said.
Social media is as important to drug dealers today as phones and beepers were in years past, said Jim Carroll, a former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy who also serves as an unpaid safety committee member and advises Snap. There’s no data on exactly how much fentanyl is trafficked across social media sites, he said, but Snapchat’s immense popularity among younger people may also help explain why traders are using the site and there are more deaths related to it with the platform there, he said.
“You can’t track the phone company just because it’s the method of communication,” he said. Still, “All these social media companies need to do more.”
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