Killed by a pill bought on social media: Should Parents Worry?

Killed by a pill bought on social media: Should Parents Worry?
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Accidental deaths among young people are on the rise as a result of the proliferation of fentanyl-laced medications being marketed on social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram.

Teens in the United States are being poisoned by counterfeit medications they purchase on social media.

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When authorities claim Alondra Salinas, 14, responded to a Snapchat offer for blue pills, which turned out to be lethal fentanyl, the night before her first day of in-person high school, she had already laid out her new white sneakers and packed her backpack. Her mother was unable to wake her the following morning.

In the middle of waiting for the results of his college applications, Zachary Didier, seventeen, was killed by a fake Percocet he had purchased online. 16-year-old Sammy Berman Chapman died in his bedroom after swallowing what he thought was a single Xanax pill. Sammy was an honor student and a straight-A student.

Their fatalities are part of a nationwide spike in drug-related mortality among high school and college-aged students in the United States, which experts attribute to a torrent of fentanyl-laced counterfeit tablets being marketed on social media and sometimes delivered directly to children's residences.

Killed by a pill bought on social media: Should Parents Worry?

Statistics from around the country reveal a significant increase in drug-related deaths during the pandemic, with fatalities rising to more than 93,000 in 2020, a 32 percent increase from 2019. However, according to a Guardian examination of 2020 federal data, no category has witnessed a greater increase than those under the age of 24. Accidental drug deaths soared by 50 percent in a single year among this age group, claiming the lives of 7,337 young people in 2020 as a result. Experts believe that a significant component of this surge is attributable to the massive quantities of fentanyl that are being imported into the United States.

California, where fentanyl deaths were uncommon only five years ago, now has one death every 12 hours among those under the age of 24, according to a study of state data through June 2021 published in the Guardian newspaper. According to data from the California Department of Public Health's drug overdose dashboard, that represents a 1,000 percent spike over the previous year.

In August, parents demonstrated outside California's state house, demanding justice for their loved ones who died from fentanyl overdoses. Photograph courtesy of Erin McCormick.

fentanyl, a low-cost synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than heroin, is not only being mixed with traditional street drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, but it is also being pressed into millions of pills that look exactly like traditional pharmaceuticals, according to federal authorities.

The potency of counterfeit drugs, on the other hand, can vary significantly. In the first three quarters of 2021, federal officials recovered about 10 million counterfeit pills, which was more than they had seized in the previous two years combined. The Drug Enforcement Administration reported that tests on the pills revealed that two of every five counterfeits contained enough fentanyl to be lethal, indicating that the counterfeits were intended for human consumption (DEA).

Meanwhile, experts claim that drug distribution has shifted away from dark alleys and street corners and onto social media, allowing young people to purchase what they believe to be Xanax, Percocet, or Oxycodone tablets from the comfort of their own homes.

"These are not overdoses; these are poisonings," said Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating pharmaceutical counterfeiting. "No one dies from taking a single Xanax, and no one dies from taking a single Percocet," says the author. "These are forgeries of prescription medications."

The author Sam Quinones, who chronicles the emergence of fentanyl in his book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, asserts that the astonishing quantities of fentanyl flowing into the country signal the end of "recreational drug use" in the United States.

"Right now, every substance you experiment with is a game of Russian roulette."
'There was only one pill.'

Ed Byrne has had enough of staring at dead bodies for too long.

Byrne, a special agent with the investigations unit of the United States Department of Homeland Security, collaborates with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local law enforcement agencies on a San Diego task force that is primarily focused on fentanyl overdoses and deaths.

There were 92 fentanyl deaths in San Diego County in the team's first year, 2018, and Byrne said the county was on course to respond to more than 810 deaths this year, according to county officials. He is sometimes dispatched to many deaths in a single day, which is unusual.

"This material doesn't make any distinctions," Byrne explained. "We have to deal with a deceased person who is living on the streets." Then we get another call, and we find ourselves in a mansion worth $12 million, where the individual who called us had died as a result of the same substance."

On the morning of June 23, 2020, everything became very personal. Byrne received a phone call from his partner, who informed him that her 14-year-old nephew, Alexander Neville, had been discovered unconscious in his bedroom 40 minutes away in Orange County, California. As soon as they got into their cars, Byrne and his companion realized it was too late.

He died after ingesting a single pill he believed to be Oxycontin, according to his mother, Alexander Neville. Amy Neville's photograph is used with permission.

Alexandra's mother, Amy Neville, stated that she had noticed something was definitely strange from the moment she walked into her son's room that morning.

As the mother explained, "I knocked on his door and as soon as I touched the door, I realized something wasn't quite right." "There was a strange feeling in the air, like there was no energy." "I knocked on the door, but he didn't answer," I said.

Alexander's family had previously been fighting to persuade him to stop using marijuana and vaping when this happened. Just a day before, they'd devised a strategy to get him into treatment after he confessed to using pills and expressed a desire to receive assistance from authorities. But he was never given the opportunity.

"Alex had taken one pill, which he believed to be Oxycontin — only one pill. "I had no notion that one tablet would be the cause of his death," his mother stated. In the same way that ordering a pizza can be done with ease on social media, he had ordered an illegally made medication using social media.

Law enforcement officers and other experts believe that it has never been easier to obtain illegal medications in the past. Dealers have transitioned from the dark web to openly selling what they label as Oxycontin, Percocet, Xanax, or Adderall on social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Craigslist, among others. One study, published in December by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), concluded that the social media platform Instagram serves as an instant "drug pipeline" for children, making it easier for them to obtain Xanax, ecstasy, and opioids in only a few clicks.

Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who specializes in addiction medicine, described the cheap availability of fentanyl as "a subterranean problem that is ready to explode." "This is a far bigger problem than we realize: it's a subterranean volcano," says the author.

Perla Mendoza claims that a dealer on the social media platform Snapchat sold the fake Xanax that resulted in the death of her son, Daniel Elijah Figueroa, 20, on September 16, 2017.

Daniel Elijah Figueroa and his mother, Perla Mendoza, pose for a photograph. Photo courtesy of Handout

Figueroa had been living with his grandma while he awaited the commencement of his community college studies. Mendoza alleged that after complaining about being unable to sleep, he had a bottle of 15 pills brought to her home in Long Beach, California.

Several days after the body was discovered by the bed in his grandmother's home, in a kneeling position that appeared to be a prayer pose, his family discovered the prescription medication container. There was only one tablet that was missing.

During an interview with the Guardian, Mendoza released screenshots of the Snapchat account she says her son used to obtain the lethal drugs. They contain an advertisement for "Oxy," which is offered for free delivery in Orange County. Among the posts is one that reads, "Hit my line, doing hella deals for the rest of this week."

In Mendoza's words, "it was one lethal tablet that was strong enough to kill four adults." He hopes that by sharing his story, other parents will have the opportunity to warn their children before it is too late. "I get the impression that a lot of parents are thinking, 'My kids aren't into that.' "It certainly wasn't mine," she admitted. "However, that is what the kids are getting."

A call for greater accountability

It was on the great steps of the California state capital in August this year that Neville and dozens of other parents of fentanyl victims formed a human chain, holding up big posters with photographs of their lost children. On the walls were posters of children in their school photographs, children still wearing braces, and children giving the thumbs up while on family beach vacations.

Laura Didier and her son Zachary are pictured here. Photo courtesy of Handout

The parents delivered remarks in which they pleaded for steps to curb drug sales on social media, increased prosecutions of drug importers, and improved mental health care for disturbed teenagers. Most of the time, they simply urged state politicians to take action to prevent other children from dying.

When Laura Didier spoke into a portable microphone, she said, "We should be packing our kid up and sending him off to college right now, but that is not happening for one reason: fentanyl." Zachary Didier, her son, was a gifted pianist who adored the cartoon character Snoopy and trained his own dog to sing while he accompanied him on the piano. Zachary died when he was seventeen years old.

Didier was tipped to be one of the valedictorians of his high school's graduating class, and he was right. However, on the morning of December 27, 2020, his father discovered him slumped over his desk after he had taken one pill labeled as Percocet that he had obtained on the social media platform Snapchat.

"He was under the impression that he was experimenting with a pharmaceutical-grade substance," his mother explained. 'We're losing our children, and all they're doing is experimenting,' says the father. "Fentanyl doesn't even give them a chance," says the author.

The father of Daniel Puerta-Johnson, 16, who was found unconscious in his home in April 2020, has assisted parents in organizing protests outside the offices of Snapchat and on the streets of San Francisco, calling for greater action from social media platforms, law enforcement and state regulators. Jaime Puerta was one of the parents who helped organize the protests.

"I made a promise to myself that if I discovered him dead in his bed, I would do something," he explained. "I'm tired of waking up every morning to the news that a new youngster has passed away."

Social media corporations are increasingly being compelled to confront the potentially lethal role that their platforms can play in public life. During a congressional hearing earlier this month, lawmakers questioned Adam Mosseri, the CEO of Instagram, about young people's easy access to illegal narcotics.

What is the point of allowing children's accounts to search for drug content in the first place, let alone allowing them to do so in a method that takes them directly to a drug dealer in two clicks? According to the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) report, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah asked the question in a statement.

The website does not permit the creation of accounts that sell narcotics or any other regulated commodities, according to Mosseri.

"It appears that they are," Lee chimed in to say.

On the 8th of December, Adam Mosseri, the CEO of Instagram, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in Washington. Image courtesy of Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

As reported by the Guardian, Jeanne Moran, a spokesman for Meta, which owns Instagram, claimed the firm removes a large number of drug-related posts and has "built technology to locate and delete this information proactively." Meta owns Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

Moran highlighted corporate data suggesting "we believe that no more than 5 of every 10,000 views of content on Instagram had content that violates the policy (on legally-regulated items)."

Jennifer Park Stout, vice-president of global public policy at Snapchat, stated in a Senate hearing in October that the company had significantly increased its efforts and was "absolutely determined" to remove all drug dealers from its site. Jennifer Park Stout is the company's global public policy director. She stated that the company has "implemented proactive detection techniques" in order to remove drug dealers, but that "they are continually dodging our strategies."

'What's happening on our platforms – and across social media and technological platforms – is that young people who are suffering from mental health and stress generated by the pandemic... are turning to narcotics, oftentimes pills and opioids,' she explained. "However, these substances are laced with fentanyl, sufficient fentanyl to cause them to die."

Dealers were churning out new accounts quicker than technology companies could shut them down, said to Eric Feinberg, vice president for content moderation at the non-profit watchdog group Coalition for a Safer Web. Feinberg conducts regular social media surveillance in order to detect drug sales taking place online, and he claims that traffickers often operate with little concern about being caught.

Following a few drug sellers' websites on social media, Feinberg claims that social media algorithms began proposing more drug sellers for him to follow, a phenomenon known as algorithmic amplification.

For example, Feinberg claims that when he began following several drug-related accounts on Instagram, a dealer began following him out of nowhere and bombarding him with offers. Photographs obtained by the Guardian show a drug dealer encouraging the buyer to place an order for delivery via the United States Postal Service, according to the Guardian's sources.

"It's ridiculously simple to come upon this stuff," Feinberg remarked. "In reality, the algorithms are designed to force you to do this."

Parents of people who died as a result of fentanyl overdoses at California's state capitol in August. Photograph courtesy of Erin McCormick

The Senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, stated during a Senate hearing in October that if social media companies were held legally accountable for deaths caused by drugs sold on their platforms, they could develop more efficient ways to respond to the crisis. Despite this, technology platforms such as Facebook and Google have long maintained that they are not legally responsible for the content that is uploaded on their sites.

In an interview with Snap's vice-president, Klobuchar stated that "if a youngster had just strolled into, say, a pharmacy, they wouldn't be able to obtain this." "However, in this instance, they can simply hop on your platform and find a way to purchase it." That is the source of the problem."

According to Kelsey Donohue, a spokesperson for Snap, the firm is "committed to do our bit to remove drug transactions on Snapchat," according to a statement published by the Guardian. Donohue outlined many measures Snap has taken, including raising awareness of counterfeit pills directly within the app, utilizing machine learning to proactively detect drug-related information, and collaborating with law enforcement and other professionals to combat the problem.

According to Donohue, "we are continually evaluating where we can continue to increase our work to resist this illicit conduct."

At this point, Safdar believes that the best thing parents and educators can do is talk to their children about the potentially lethal consequences of experimenting with drugs.

"The current generation must understand that a drug that does not come from a pharmacy or a hospital can't be trusted and that it may result in a life-ending incident," he explained. " "Unfortunately, they're finding out the hard way by losing their friends."

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