Legalize Cannabis to Combat Social Media Drug Dealers, Says Think Tank
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A new report claims that nearly one in four (24 percent) of young people in Britain have seen drugs – often cannabis – advertised on social media.
In response to their findings, the authors of the report argue that the UK should legalize cannabis, in order to reduce the allure and power of the country's illicit drug market.
Conducted by the British drug policy think tank Volteface, DM for Details: Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media drew on polling data from 16- to 24-year-olds, an observational trawl of the social media platforms Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and interviews with relevant demographics.
Just how prevalent are these adverts?
Of those young people who witnessed drugs adverts on social media, 56 percent were on Snapchat, 55 percent on Instagram, and 47 percent on Facebook.
Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those illicit drug adverts reportedly concerned cannabis, which would make marijuana the most commonly marketed drug on the social media platforms.
The next most commonly advertised drugs were:
- Cocaine (26 percent)
- MDMA/Ecstasy (24 percent)
- Xanax (20 percent)
- Nitrous oxide, aka ‘laughing gas’ (17 percent)
- Codeine/Lean (16 percent)
Seventy-two percent of those surveyed saw illicit drugs being marketed this way once a month or more. Overall, the likelihood of seeing these drug adverts on social media correlated with time spent on social media.
The young people surveyed also appeared to be relatively unconcerned about seeing controlled substances advertised on social media. On average, 36 percent of those surveyed said they weren’t concerned about the adverts, but this figure rose to 48 percent among the under-18s age group.
What effect is this having on British youth?
Based on interviews with young people and professionals, Volteface claims that drug adverts on social media may be normalizing drug use for young people.
Social media platforms also allow the drug dealers to showcase parts of their life or lifestyle, which enables them to build trust between themselves and the young people interacting with their social media accounts. Online posts that flaunt a lavish lifestyle can also lure young people into the drug trade.
Interviewees also felt that social media platforms have made it easier to get into drug dealing; as they offer a familiar and easy-to-use platform, the apps can often be used anonymously. This means that drug dealers no longer need to engage in face-to-face interactions or sell drug on the street and might therefore reduce certain risks associated with traditional forms of drug dealing.
But Volteface was careful to clarify that social media is not a form of harm reduction. Instead, the think tank claim that social media is encouraging more young people to become involved in the drug trade.
What can regulators do to combat online drug dealing?
From its research, Volteface says that there is a general lack of awareness and understanding in policing about the role that social media is playing in the nation’s drug trade. Even where police might understand the platforms, the use of emojis and evolving coded language can make it difficult to identify accounts that might be selling drugs.
Once an account is identified, taking action can be challenging. Encryption and the use of VPN technology can make it difficult to trace dealers and to determine who might be behind an anonymous account. If an account is taken down by the relevant social media company, it’s still easy for a dealer to set up a new account and resume operations.
The DM for Details report offers several recommendations for the UK government that could help to combat the emergence of drug markets on social media. For example, the government could introduce a regulatory requirement for social media companies to monitor activity to better understand how language, emojis, and certain platform design features are facilitating drug dealing on the platform. This information and related accounts could then be shared with police.
The report also recommends that social media platforms begin investing in schemes that address the harms caused by drug trafficking and stop previously banned users from opening new accounts.
But the central recommendation of the report is a more dramatic one: the UK should legalize cannabis.
Cannabis is the UK’s most commonly used illicit drug. By legalizing recreational use of the drug, the report claims, power could be taken away from the country’s black market (worth a gargantuan £2.5 billion a year) and the government could better tackle issues such as underage cannabis use or the sale of unsafe cannabis products.
While this would be quite a dramatic policy change, it wouldn't necessarily be an unpopular one. Recent nationwide polling found that 48 percent of UK voters favor legalizing recreational use of marijuana, up five points from the previous year.