Life with Gracie: Parents, beware: The internet could be your kid’s drug dealer

It used to be people bought drugs from so-called friends or sketchy men in dark corners of clubs and alleys. Now, I’m told customers are buying products off Instagram, Grindr, Tinder, Whisper, Yik Yak, and something called the darknet.

Who knew?

For years, parents have been wringing their hands about how to tame cyberbullying and keep sexual predators from their children. Well, they’d better add this one to the list as well, experts say.

As helpful as social media can be, it can be a direct hit to an overdose, said Louise Stanger, a social worker and interventionist based in Southern California. She said parents should rethink when, where and how they allow their teen to use their devices.

“Social media is the ultimate oxymoron,” Stanger said. “You can score like an Olympian with the use of social media connecting with friends, researching study topics, connecting across the globe, and you can fall like Hades using it to score and sell dope and hook up with all the wrong folks. Parents must be vigilant in their communication with their teens, and teens must beware of the challenges a digital age faces.”

In many ways, the proliferation of social media applications has replaced telephones, said John DeCarlo, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven.

DeCarlo, a former chief of police in Branford, Conn., said it isn’t so much that there are apps specifically to buy drugs as it is apps have replaced phones as the way we communicate.

“A much more robust and organized way to use technology to buy drugs and other illicit materials is by using the dark web,” he said. “Almost any drug in existence, both illegal and prescription, can be purchased from vendors on the dark web.”

Scott A. Spackey, an international drug and addiction expert based in Washington state, devotes an entire chapter in his book, “Project Addiction: The Complete Guide to Using, Abusing and Recovering From Drugs and Behaviors,” to the subject.

According to him, everything you could want — from pot and LSD to cocaine and heroin — is available provided you know how to access the darknet, which, by the way, has been active for nearly a decade.

It is so active, in fact, that just in the past five years, it has become a billion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of customers worldwide.

That’s huge.

How does it work?

Spackey said the darknet was actually invented by Swiss and U.S. government officials to create Tor or the Onion Browser. Once you install Tor, you have access to the darknet. Parents, this one can’t be accessed from Google or any other browser.

When you type in a website from the Tor browser, it redirects your IP address so there is no way to track your presence or the dealer websites so you can cruise the darknet with almost absolute anonymity. And here’s the clincher: Purchases are made with online currency known as bitcoin. Although it is not untraceable, bitcoin is difficult to follow, which is why drug dealers and online extortionists use it.

To give you an idea of how lucrative this business is, Spackey said one bitcoin in 2013 cost $70. Currently one bitcoin equals $575.

In addition to the darknet marketplace, social networks can help you find drug dealers close to your location.

The problem, according to Tod Burke, criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia and former Maryland cop, is there is no reliable method for buyer or seller to know who’s legit. For sure, there is little incentive for dealers to transact honestly.

He said youths are using social media to not only score drugs but to also sell and distribute them.

“Sometimes what they will do in one of their posts is put something as simple as “420 friendly,” slang for marijuana, or use hashtags such as #MDMA for what they are searching for,” Burke said.

The problem arises, of course, when the dealer turns out to be an undercover police officer or someone a lot more dangerous. You also have to worry about the product being inferior or lethal.

Spackey, however, maintains that darknet dealers provide their wares almost exclusively through snail mail and rarely, if ever, meet anyone in person. The packages come disguised with fictional return addresses that can’t be tracked.

“Selling drugs on the internet is as illegal as it would be if you were selling them on the street,” Burke said. “This is nothing to be playing around with and another example for why parents need to pay attention to what their kids are doing on social networking sites.”

Spackey, though, doesn’t give much credence to drug dealing on social media sites because chances of getting caught are greater.

“Smart kids are not going to use those kinds of apps to score drugs,” he said.

Indeed, 60 percent of the under-30 crowd that he interacts with each week in counseling sessions know about the darknet, the Amazon of all things illicit. Half of young adults who know about it actually use it.

Scary, whether you’re a parent or not.

Stanger maintains that as long as there have been phones and social media, there has been the ability to buy drugs online and connect with suppliers.

So how can parents keep their kid safe?

Stanger offered these tips:

1. Communicate openly and frankly with your teen about drugs, she said.

2. Keep privacy settings high on all social media sites and discourage posting personal information online or connecting with people you don’t know.

3. If your teen is experiencing signs of substance abuse, cancel their phone. You could be inadvertently paying for their drug dealer.

Who knew?

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