Teenagers use emoji and secret lingo to find illegal drugs. How parents can crack the code

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Teenagers buy drugs through popular social media platforms and text messaging, often under the noses of their parents. Experts decode secret terms and emojis used in transactions that can be deadly.

Becca Schmill, 18, of Needham, Mass. enjoyed playing guitar and visiting presidential libraries and was destined for college, having been accepted to the University of Richmond in Virginia.

But underneath that “funny, adventurous and determined” energy, Becca was using drugs, her parents said. In September 2020, Becca died of an accidental overdose, after consuming drugs containing fentanyl.

“We didn’t know how easy it was for her to get medicine 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 potent synthetic opioid similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent.”

Becca used a shortcut to find drugs on social media, her parents said.

Related: Here’s what’s really going on on social media

According to a May research letter published in JAMA, the teen overdose death rate nearly doubled in 2020 and then increased another 20% in 2021. As NBC News reports, many of these deaths are due to fentanyl.

The drug code emoji

Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration released a parent’s guide to deciphering the “Emoji Drug Code”, a graphic bearing popular symbols repurposed for drug dealing.

For example, a pill emoji symbolizes drugs like Percocet, Adderall, or Oxycodone, heroin is depicted with a snake or brown heart, and cocaine is a snowflake. The emblem of marijuana is the palm or pine.

And dealers indicate big batches of drugs with a cookie symbol while high potency substances are represented by bomb or rocket emoticons.

DEA

“Fake prescription pills, usually 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 depicting the lingo their daughter used on Snapchat months before her death: “I’m fine-tuning.” Need stronger mgs.” The answer offer: “Oxy 15s.”

Eric Feinberg, vice president of content moderation for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safer Web, shared more common verbiage used in drug deals.

“The word ‘plug’ means ‘plug me in'” with drugs,” Feinberg told TODAY Parents. And misspelled words like “pilz” (pills), “xanaz” (Xanax), “cush” (marijuana ) facilitate open discussion without triggering social media guarantees, he said.

Five years ago, Feinberg created a fake Instagram account to follow and exchange direct messages with suspected drug dealers. He showed TODAY ads for popular exercise equipment, a major streaming service, children’s entertainment and fast food.

Andrew Sussman, CEO of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, said advertisers risk running ads alongside drug-related content. “There is no perfect filter,” he told Snow.

In the meantime, says Becca’s mother, Deb Schmill, “Our daughter is the consequence. And how many more Beccas are there before those in control take responsibility?”

In response to TODAY’s request for comment, a Snapchat spokesperson told TODAY:

“We explicitly prohibit any activity related to the illicit sale of drugs on Snapchat, and we are determined to use all our resources to make our platform a hostile environment for drug dealers. We use advanced technologies to proactively detect this type of content so that we can terminate dealer accounts and prevent them from trying to create new ones. We also work with drug enforcement agencies and third-party intelligence experts who scan other platforms for illegal drug content that references Snapchat, so we can take quick action to find and ban the accounts of these resellers.

Additionally, an Instagram spokesperson said in a statement:

“We prohibit the sale of illegal drugs on Instagram and have developed technology to proactively find and remove this content. In 2022, we acted on 1.8 million drug content, 96% of which was proactively detected before anyone reports it to us. We have deactivated the accounts in question and will continue to make improvements to keep people safe on Instagram.”

Related: Should children have smartphones? The debate intensifies over the impact on mental health

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