The Digital Drug Industry

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By Grace Stanley (she/her)

Photo by Altin Ferreira on Unsplash

CW: Self-injurious behaviour, Drugs, Drug Abuse/Addiction 

As technology, the internet, and more specifically social media grow, industries everywhere have been forced to evolve and adapt to compete. Supermarkets’ shopkeepers have been replaced by self-scanners; the ease of a quick Google search is more appealing than the library; and even the ornate interiors of University lecture halls gather dust as learning enters the digital sphere. This race to provide the next cutting-edge development, app, or product has left no survivors in its ruthless path, keep up or pack up, and the drug industry is no exception.

When everything in our lives is available from the comfort of our own homes, why would drugs be any different? Drug dealing has transitioned from dark corner exchanges to social media, with encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Wickr, it has never been easier to get your hands on, well, anything. The internet has always had its dark corners and whether hidden in plain sight or buried under miles of pages in the dark web, there is relatively nothing you can’t buy or sell online. However, these corners no longer seem as appealing. When most things can be accessed with a few simple taps, most of us don’t want to spend our time traipsing through dodgy webpages – I don’t want to hire a hitman; I just want to buy a gram. 

In recent years, social media has boomed, and for the drug industry it has filled the gap in the market between street dealers and the dark web. With relatively easy access and still no need to stray too far from your bedroom, it acts as the perfect halfway house. Social media is familiar, easy to use, and fortunately for drug dealers, some platforms like Instagram don’t even require any personal details to create an account. 

But, of course, like every other industry adapting to life online, it’s not an easy gig. To be the best on social media you have to look the best, and playing the part is everyone’s one-way ticket to success. Social media is built upon facades created by ‘influencers’, and their fans follow suit. Drug dealing online has impersonated this attention-grabbing talent to an uncanny likelihood. Long gone are the days of one-liner messages to ancient burner phones or getting someone’s mate to sort you out; drugs of all kinds are marketed better than most other small businesses – with bundle deals, giveaways, and discount codes are the new standard. 

This online presence has allowed drug dealers to connect with more potential clients than ever before. When a dealer may have been restricted to a singular locality, now they are able to sell to anyone, anywhere in the world. Moreover, international postage of small personal quantities of drugs are far less likely to be caught than large scale smuggling and importation, and it conveniently comes with much more lenient penalties. Taxi apps like Uber are also paving paths for this new digital drug industry. Ubering to drop off or pick up the next hit is considerably less risky than driving yourself, especially when as a car may become recognisable to police. 

This increased accessibility has fundamentally changed our perception of drugs and dealers. In a recent study by Volteface, it was found that one in four young people see illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media – 56% saw drugs advertised on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram, and 47% on Facebook. These advertisements allow a level of credibility to the drug industry and serve to legitimise it, kind of like how ads have influenced the normalisation of gambling in sports. This can be a worrying prospect when considered alongside the low-quality drug education most children currently receive, and could facilitate an uptake in drug use within the younger generation.

Could this normalisation be a good thing? With conversations about drugs becoming less of a taboo, could this create a more open path to engage in conversations surrounding addiction and recovery? Or alternatively, is this a slippery slope that we are already too far down the rabbit hole to recover from? 


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