By Mark White, home affairs correspondent
Social media platforms are increasingly being used as a market place for illicit drugs, according to the first definitive study of the practice.
The report, commissioned by the advocacy group Volteface and seen exclusively by Sky News, found that one in four young people had seen illegal drugs advertised by dealers on social media.
The report’s authors believe the number of youngsters who have seen these adverts is even higher than when the study was carried out in January.
Volteface commissioned Survation to conduct a nationally representative poll of 2,006 16 to 24-year-olds, who reported seeing most adverts for illicit substances on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
Of those who reported seeing drugs for sale on social media, 56% saw them being advertised on Snapchat, 55% on Instagram and 47% on Facebook.
According to the survey, the drug most commonly being pushed by dealers on social media was cannabis, with 63% of respondents seeing it advertised.
Cocaine was the second drug most commonly seen advertised, 26% of youngsters saw it, followed by 24% who saw MDMA/ecstasy advertised.
Sky News spoke to four 17-year-olds, who help spread the message to other youngsters about the potential dangers of drug use.
All said they had seen drugs advertised on their social media platforms.
Indy Sungoo said: “We see things like cannabis and soft drugs, really every type of drug is now being advertised on social media.
“Before it was a case for youngsters of whether they should really risk it, going on to the street to buy drugs. But now because it’s on their feed and on their timeline, many are thinking ‘why not?'”
Mariam Mighdiseli told us she had seen numerous ads selling drugs.
“It’s mainly the most used platforms where I’ve seen these drugs advertised,” she said.
“Sites like Instagram and Snapchat because you can get thousands of followers on these apps and dealers can forward their ads to a mass audience of young people.
“It’s so easy. People joke around about being friends with their drug dealer, because the dynamic between the buyer and the dealer has changed. It’s no longer this scary concept of this hooded person on the street.”
The Volteface study found that almost half of under-18s questioned were unconcerned by the appearance of illegal drug adverts on their social media sites.
Lizzie McCulloch from Volteface said the relatively recent phenomenon of drug dealers selling their product through social media had almost become normalised.
“The fact that we’ve only recently heard about it and now one in four young people are reporting seeing drugs advertised for sale, that’s absolutely staggering and actually, we suspect the number is far higher because these ads are popping up much more frequently,” she said.
“It’s hard to find youngsters who are not seeing these adverts and what we found surprising is how unconcerned young people are by them. For them, it’s a normal part of day to day life.”
Former drug dealer Niko Vorobyou, who was jailed for selling drugs and now writes about the trade in drugs, said that although dealers online might appear benign, there are still dangers in buying illegal substances over the net.
“You’re probably still meeting some dodgy guy at the end of the day. You don’t know what you’re buying, it could be a scam for all you know. I’d say, just because it’s on social media, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safer.”
Amelia Byers, 17, said: “For the older generation, I don’t think they realise that times have changed. They probably don’t see dealing as much on street corners. But they might not see it online either, because they don’t know the key word to search for drugs for sale.”
Fellow teenager Oliver Unasing added: “I don’t think social media’s going away anytime soon. So the quicker we stop focusing on preventing young people using these platforms, we can begin educating them properly on how to avoid certain things on these platforms and how to handle messages dealers might send.”
Mr Vorobyov said using social media “takes the risk out of the game for dealers a little bit because there isn’t so much person to person interaction”.
He added: “All potential buyers have to do is search for the right hashtags on Instagram and it will come up with a lot of results.
“Even if Instagram block the hashtag, there’s so many different slang terms, so you just have to put in what the word of the moment is then ‘Bob’s your uncle’.”
Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat all told Sky News they do not tolerate the sale of illegal drugs on their platforms.
Instagram and Facebook said: “We don’t allow the sale or purchase of illegal drugs on Facebook and Instagram. We work closely with the police to keep drugs content off our platforms. We invest heavily in new technology to identify the code words and images someone may use when attempting to sell drugs.”
A Snapchat spokeswoman said: “Snap is deeply committed to the safety of our community and our terms of service and our community guidelines prohibit anyone from using Snapchat to buy or sell drugs. As Voteface notes in its report, it was not possible to identify illicit accounts on Snapchat, but only via other public platforms.
“The design of Snapchat encourages users to interact with their real friends and not strangers. We encourage anyone who sees illegal content to report it.”