Teens buy drugs through popular social media platforms and text messages, often right under the noses of their parents. Experts are cracking the secret terms and emojis used in deals that can be deadly.
Becca Schmill, 18, from Needham, Massachusetts, loved playing the guitar and visiting the presidential libraries and was destined for college, having been accepted to the University of Richmond in Virginia.
But underneath that “fun, adventurous and determined” energy, Becca was using drugs, her parents said. In September 2020, Becca died of an accidental overdose, after using drugs laced with fentanyl.
“We didn’t realize how easy it was for her to get medication basically delivered to our door,” Becca’s father, Stu Schmill, told NBC News anchor Kate Snow on Tuesday.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is “a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.”
Becca used shorthand to find drugs through social media, her parents said.
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According to a May investigative letter published in JAMA, the teen overdose death rate nearly doubled in 2020 and then rose an additional 20 percent in 2021. As NBC News reported, many of those deaths were due to fentanyl.
The emoji drug code
Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration published a parent’s guide to cracking the “Emoji Drug Code,” a chart with popular symbols repurposed for drug deals.
For example, a pill emoji symbolizes drugs like Percocet, Adderall, or Oxycodone, heroin is represented by a snake or a brown heart and cocaine is a snowflake. The emblem of marijuana is the palm tree or the pine tree.
And dealers denote large batches of drugs with a cookie symbol, while high-potency substances are represented with bomb or rocket emojis.
“Fake prescription pills, commonly laced with deadly fentanyl and methamphetamine, are often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms,” the federal agency warns.
Becca’s parents shared with TODAY a screenshot illustrating the slang used by their daughter on Snapchat, months before her death: “I’m retouching.” I need some stronger mg.” The answer offer: “Oxy 15s”.
Eric Feinberg, vice president of content moderation for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safer Web, shared the most common verbiage used in drug deals.
“The word ‘plug’ means ‘connect'” with drugs,” Feinberg told TODAY Parents. And misspelled words like “pilz” (pills), “xanaz” (Xanax), “cush” (marijuana) facilitate open discussion without activating safeguards on social networks, he said.
Five years ago, Feinberg created a fake Instagram account to follow and exchange direct messages with suspected drug dealers. She showed TODAY ads for popular exercise equipment, a major streaming service, kids’ entertainment, and fast food.
Andrew Sussman, executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, said advertisers risk running ads alongside drug-related content. “There is no perfect filter,” he told Snow.
Meanwhile, says Becca’s mother, Deb Schmill, “Our daughter is the consequence. And how many more Beccas are left before those in control take responsibility for this?”
In response to TODAY’s request for comment, a Snapchat spokesperson told TODAY:
“We explicitly prohibit any activity related to the sale of illicit drugs on Snapchat, and we are determined to use all our resources to make our platform a hostile environment for drug dealers. We use state-of-the-art technologies to proactively detect this type of content so we can close distributor accounts and prevent them from trying to create new accounts. We also work with drug enforcement agencies and third-party intelligence experts who scan other platforms for illicit drug content referencing Snapchat, so we can take swift action to find and ban those dealers’ accounts.”
Additionally, an Instagram spokesperson said in a statement:
“We prohibit the sale of illicit drugs on Instagram and have developed technology to proactively find and remove this content. In 2022, we acted on 1.8 million pieces of drug content, of which 96% were proactively detected before anyone told us, they have disabled the accounts in question and will continue to make improvements to keep people safe on Instagram.”
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