Group urges feds to investigate Snapchat over fentanyl sales

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the United States faces its deadliest overdose crisis yet, a national crime prevention group is calling on the Justice Department to crack down on social media’s role in the spread of fentanyl. , the drug largely driving a troubling spike in teenage overdose deaths.

The National Crime Prevention Council sent a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling for an investigation. The group known for its ads featuring McGruff the Crime Dog is particularly concerned about the sale of fake fentanyl-containing pills on Snapchat, a popular platform among teens.

“Drug traffickers are using American innovation to sell deadly products,” executive director Paul DelPonte wrote. “Social media platforms bear some responsibility for these deaths.”

Overdose deaths in the United States hit a record high last year, with an average of one death every five minutes in the United States. Among adolescents ages 10 to 19, deaths rose 109% between 2019 and 2021, according to monthly median data from the Centers for Disease Control. and Prevention. The vast majority of those deaths, 84%, involved fentanyl, according to the report released last week.

Dealers use numerous 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 dealers, DelPonte said.

The Department of Justice did not comment on the letter.

Snapchat’s parent company, for its part, said it had taken significant steps to improve security on the platform and saw user reports of drug sales drop more than 23% last year. to 3.3% last month. He also backs a new bill to strengthen reporting of drug-related activity by social media companies.

Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy at Snap, said the company uses technology to identify and remove dealers and support law enforcement investigations. “We will continue to do everything we can to address this national crisis,” she said in a statement.

Still, Snapchat is the most common platform grieving families mention when asking her group for help, DelPonte said.

Those parents included Amy Neville, whose son Alex was 14 when he bought a pill he thought was Oxycontin through the platform in June 2020. The boy had just told his parents about his drug experimentation and they were on the point of putting him into treatment.

One day, he got a haircut, went to lunch with his dad, and hung out with friends. After returning to the family home in Orange County, California, he went to his bedroom and at some point took the pill that ended his life.

“The next morning, I found him in his bed. The rest is madness,” Amy Neville said. “After he died, we said, ‘How did this happen?’ We thought we were ready.'”

Her family knew little about fentanyl, which federal authorities say can be deadly in amounts less than the tip of a pencil. Neville received a tragic upbringing in the years after his son’s death and also heard of more families whose children died of overdoses after buying pills through Snapchat, often for less than $25.

Neville, who calls Snap’s recent changes “a small band-aid on a gaping wound,” is also part of a California lawsuit against the company. The lawsuit names several teenagers and young adults across the country who have died after accidental overdoses. was filed by the Social Media Victims Law Center, which now represents 28 families whose children purchased counterfeit pills through Snapchat. Founding attorney Matthew Bergman said the platform is the only one where their clients’ children have got fake or deadly pills.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has called fentanyl “the deadliest drug threat facing this country,” and Administrator Anne Milgram has said social media apps are “the perfect drug delivery tool.” in a speech where she also named platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. .

Ed Ternan became an activist after his son died aged 22 after taking a single fentanyl-containing pill he thought was Percocet. He said he’s seen more action from Snapchat than other platforms since they became aware of the problem in early 2021. But he’d rather see the government work with companies to prosecute resellers than to launch a business survey.

“If the carrot works, at some point the stick is counterproductive,” said Ternan, who sits on Snap’s safety board. “I want to avoid future deaths. And we do it with educational awareness and join forces with social media companies.

While the latest data on overdose deaths show encouraging signs, the number of fentanyl-containing pills seized in the United States has more than doubled this year, the DEA said this week. The drug is largely produced in illicit labs in Mexico, with precursor chemicals purchased from China, authorities said.

For drug traffickers, social media today holds a similar place to the telephones and pagers of years past, said Jim Carroll, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy who is also an unpaid board member. safety advising Snap. There is no data on exactly how much fentanyl is trafficked through social media sites, he said, but Snapchat’s immense popularity among young people could also help explain why dealers use the site. and there are more platform-related deaths, he said.

“You can’t sue the phone company just because it’s the method of communication,” he said. “All of these social media companies need to do more.”

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This story corrects the spelling of the National Crime Prevention Council Executive Director’s last name. It’s Paul DelPonte, not DePonte.

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