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AG report says social media, fentanyl dealers a dangerous duo

A report released by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser says social media increases the ease of access to fentanyl.

COLORADO, USA — The Colorado Attorney General's Office released a new report this week that highlights the dangerous relationship between social media and fentanyl distribution. 

The report notes that social media increases the "ease of access" to finding and purchasing fentanyl. It emphasizes several loopholes, which allow dealers to continue their presence online.

AG Phil Weiser said he wants more transparency from social media platforms in the hopes that collaboration will help stop fentanyl distribution. 

“As innovative online services and platforms weave their way into nearly every aspect of our lives, they also threaten to fuel a dangerous killer—the increasing ease of access to deadly substances, including fentanyl,” Weiser said.

Weiser added that one of the measures his office is calling for is platform accountability and platform oversight. He said platforms should be required to disclose how they're operating. 

"They should be expected to cooperate with law enforcement on specific timetables, and they should be partners in this work," Weiser said. 

Kimberly Osterman, who lives in Thornton, said her 18-year-old son Max bought a pill he thought was Percocet on Snapchat. She said the pill was laced with fentanyl and it killed him in 2021. 

"They will deliver," she said about the access to social media. "They give you a menu of what they have. Absolutely. It is the scariest thing. They don’t have to go to a scary, dangerous part of town to buy drugs. They can order it right from their house and have it delivered."

According to the report, platforms take anywhere from three weeks to up to three months to turn around information to law enforcement, and by the time the intelligence on the drug sellers' activities is produced it is outdated. 

The report also said some policies among the platforms are problematic. Frequently platforms notify users that police have requested information from their accounts, thereby tipping off drug sellers that they are the targets of an investigation according to the report.

Weiser also noted that while usage of social media apps skews to younger users, it's a significant issue that is not exclusively isolated to teens.

The report was compiled with information gathered from sources like government reports, academic publications, public health data and recent news articles. 

“In law enforcement investigations, time is of the essence. When platforms intentionally tout features like near-immediate deletion of communication exchanges and short retention periods of data held on the platforms’ servers, it puts law enforcement at an extreme disadvantage when investigating those using the platforms for illegal activities like selling drugs,” said Cmdr. Nick Goldberger of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the AG's report, "drug sellers rely on certain internet platform designs and features to facilitate drug sales."

The report goes on to explain that most "social media companies reviewed by the department adopted policies that banned the use of their platforms to promote, advertise, buy or sell illicit substances, and made some efforts to work with law enforcement to address the issue, companies’ responses to drug activity on their platforms generally have been both uneven in their application and effectiveness, leaving considerable room for improvement."

The report outlines recommendations for policy and legislative interventions that could help combat the online illicit substance market including: 

  • Social media platforms should adopt a uniform, robust set of best practices to prevent and respond to illicit drug activity.
  • Colorado should consider legislation requiring social media platforms to clearly disclose their policies on drug activity and cooperation with law enforcement and to publish regular transparency reports providing data on their enforcement activities.
  • Social media companies should enter a memorandum of understanding with the department, memorializing their commitment to implementing identified best practices for addressing illicit substance activity on their platforms, subject to penalties for failure to follow the terms of the memorandum.
  • More resources should be provided to support existing law enforcement efforts to combat drug distribution online.
  • Increased resources for substance abuse treatment and harm reduction specifically tailored for teens and young adults.
  • There should be increased focus in expanding increasing internet and social media literacy for parents and caregivers.
  • A federal agency should be empowered to oversee social media platforms; and
  • Federal legislation requiring greater access to social media platforms’ data transparency should be enacted.

Find the full report here

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