Online dealers are using the Internet’s biggest social media platforms and business websites to connect with customers in plain sight.
The situation has created a puzzle for law enforcement and e-businesses, exposed the inadequacy of cannabis laws, and made parents fearful of their teens’ virtual habits. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that black market workers, who have built their livelihoods off skirting laws, have harnessed the power of social media to advertise goods and connect with new clientele. Napster founder, Sean Parker, famously predicted people would “live online” in the future. The pandemic has shortened the timelines on this forecast. If today’s population lives online, people go to work on Zoom and hang out on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. It’s natural that online dealers would target these virtual hangouts to solicit customers, the way they once did in public parks or alleys.
As online dealers have moved from the murky pools of the dark web into the open waters of the world’s biggest social networks, it’s worth seeing if they’re simply keeping up with the times, or if the new tools have expanded their customer base.
Where do You Find an Online Dealer?
Web searches reveal an odd paradox about online dealers selling cannabis. About half the hits refer to articles concerned about online dealers targeting teens and children while the other half are how-to pieces aimed at adults trying to find cannabis medicine while living in an illegal state or country.
This dichotomy illustrates a few crucial points about the online cannabis business.
First, there are severe regulatory challenges for online advertising on social media sites. While the big players seem to do a good job at removing questionable content, it took years for the likes of Facebook to crack down on hate speech and pro-Nazi propaganda.
Those challenges have no doubt gotten more difficult with the advent of legalized cannabis. These platforms pride themselves on allowing freedom of expression. While essential for a good experience on social media, this attitude can also let black market dealers proliferate.
Should I Buy Weed Online? Is it a Scam?
An investigation by the U.K. newspaper The Evening Standard outlined the explosion of online dealers in Britain. Uploading pictures of cannabis and other substances on outlets like Instagram, then connecting directly with users through lightly coded emojis, allows drug deals to happen “out in the open.”
Sometimes, online dealers advertise their goods through pictures, then message interested users with times and locations to meet up.
Online dealers are sophisticated sellers. They aren’t simply hash tagging their posts with lazy buzzwords. Many use the connective power of social media to their advantage. For example, searching through tagged posts about opioid recovery reveals a plethora of online drug advertisements. Online dealers know that recovering opioid addicts are in a precarious position, so they target individuals who may be looking for relief; and individuals who are likely to relapse.
For their part, the titans of social media have paid lip service to the problem — and taken a few steps to stamp out blatantly problematic hashtags — but aside from the regular assurances that they’re trying, there hasn’t been much reaction to extinguish the practice.
The Digital Black Market Grows Everyday
The second part of the dichotomy is revealed by the amount of searches for illegal online cannabis. The current legal methods are obviously not working for customers.
Many dispensaries and pot shops in Canada are not allowed to deliver weed door-to-door. In America and Europe, many regions have not yet legalized cannabis. In these instances, online dealers are simply filling a marketing void.
People want cannabis to treat their pain, to ease anxiety, to feel better. And, like all consumers, they want to buy it in the most convenient way possible. And at the best possible price.
Experts believe that one cannabis dispensary will need to exist for every 10,000 consumers to shut down the black market. Given the choice, most consumers will deal with a reputable, legal, service over an illegal one. But, the convenience, cost, and selection must be roughly equal. Further, customers tend to stick with ‘their guy’ in newly legalized regions. Clients and black market dealers build a rapport and trust over the years of exchange.
Police, Scams, and Online Dealers
There’s an old saying that there are no old drug dealers. Eventually, everyone gets caught or stops.
Online dealers have a wealth of tools to disguise their movement and cover their tracks. They use misspellings and emojis to avoid search functions. They carefully check any accounts they connect with to ensure they’re talking with real people instead of undercover police.
To combat these problems, two researchers at the University of Rochester wrote an algorithm to help police track down online dealers on Instagram. Using multimodal analysis, the algorithm helps to target likely drug sellers by analyzing the accounts full range of activity. It’s been effective in apprehending some dealers, but it has limitations. Therefore, the algorithm may not catch everyone.
And it certainly is no match for the bottom feeder scammers looking to make a quick buck off the vulnerable and close shop. Further, while law enforcement probably cares far less about fake drug selling than the real deal, it can be a problem for adult patients looking to access real medicine. Avoiding scams online can be difficult. Consumers who opt to go this route should do a lot of homework to determine if it’s worth the risk.
As law enforcement becomes savvier at stopping online dealers over social media, the black market reacts and adjusts. It bears resemblance to the cat-and-mouse game that plays out in the real world, only shifted to the Internet. The U.S. federal government nabbed 350 online dealers in one year via Instagram alone, but that represents only a drop in a bucket that’s overflowing.
Don’t Buy From Online Dealers Commenting on Posts
The rise of online dealers challenges law enforcement, but more than that, it finally exposes how inadequate the cannabis laws have been at reducing black market activity, and how powerless tech companies are (whether willingly or not) at policing their own platforms. It is our recommendation that you do not buy from online dealers. Most are scammers anyway, and you’ll never see your purchase.