One fake pill laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl can kill.
Georgia investigators fear drug dealers are exploiting social media and encrypted messaging apps to get these dangerous pills into the hands of tech-savvy teens and young adults.
Zach Didier, a 17-year-old college senior, was college bound and thrilled about his future.
His mother said he was bored and anxious during Christmas break of 2020.
The California teen and a friend decided to buy what they thought was the painkiller Percocet through a dealer on Snapchat.
Two days after Christmas, Zach’s dad found him in his room unconscious, dead after taking a pill.
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“He was at the computer. It was like he laid his head down and never woke up,” said Laura Didier, Zach’s mother.
Mitchell Posey with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told Channel 2 Action News that a soaring number of young people and teens here in Georgia are also turning to social media and encrypted messaging apps to buy drugs that too often are poisoned with fentanyl.
“The younger generation is comfortable with communicating over social media and navigating social media. The same is true for the drug dealers,” Posey said.
Channel 2 Action News downloaded Telegram, the fastest-growing messenger app on the market. A search of drug chat groups revealed a multitude of illegal drugs, including pills for sale.
“You’re losing the need to see someone and meet someone in a dark alley,” explained David Maimon, Georgia State University professor and Director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group.
He said online drug sales have moved from the dark web to social media platforms because telegram and other sites like it, offer end-to-end encryption, which blocks third parties from viewing what’s said and sold.
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“It’s just mind-boggling how easy it is to just jump on a telegram channel and purchase any type of drug that your heart desires, including fentanyl.”
But many who buy the drugs aren’t looking for illicit fentanyl. They’re often seeking prescription pain medications and anti-anxiety drugs.
Phony prescription pills are pressed and stamped to look authentic. The DEA said two out of five counterfeit pills sold contain lethal amounts of fentanyl.
“That number is worse than playing Russian roulette with your life,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the National Drug Control Policy Center.
Fentanyl is cheap, easy to make, and hugely profitable.
The DEA said it seized over 20 million counterfeit pills in 2021, a small fraction of what’s on the market. Often, they are sold through hookups on social media and messenger apps.
“What we are seeing is the wild, wild west out there. There’s not enough regulation on those platforms,” Maimon said. “Law enforcement is having a hard time monitoring what’s going on these platforms.”
In January 2023 it was reported that the FBI and the Department of Justice were investigating Snapchat’s role in fentanyl deaths.
In an email, Snapchat told Channel 2 Action News that it’s added new technology tools to identify and remove illegal drug dealers from its platform and they’ve hired more people to help police identify and arrest drug dealers.
Telegram told Channel 2 Action News that they monitor and remove publicly available content promoting drug sales.
In a September letter, a congressional committee urged the US Attorney to do more to combat drug sales on social media.
Gupta said the National Drug Control Policy Center is asking social media companies to keep drug dealers off their platforms.
“There are people who are deliberately poisoning young people with the intent to make money,” Gupta said.
Zach Didier’s parents have made it their mission to educate other parents and young people not to take pills that aren’t prescribed by a doctor because one tainted pill can kill.
“If his story can put a face to this crisis, we know he would want us to do that,” Laura Didier said.