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Sheriff: Social Media Has Worsened Fentanyl Crisis

Amid a nationwide surge in drug overdoses caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, private messaging platforms have made it harder for law enforcement to track sellers of deadly pills, one sheriff says.

Social media apps on a smartphone screen.
Shutterstock/Cristian Dina
(TNS) — Amid a nationwide surge in drug overdoses caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, private messaging platforms have made it harder for law enforcement to track sellers of deadly counterfeit pills, Spokane County's sheriff told a panel of Republican lawmakers Wednesday.

In a roundtable discussion at the Capitol organized by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Sheriff John Nowels said fentanyl overdose deaths in Spokane County rose by more than 1,200% from 2017 to 2021. Some of those victims, he said, have acquired drugs through online messaging platforms with privacy features that prevent law enforcement from retrieving evidence they need to crack down on dealers.

"We are finding as time goes on that there are more and more online ways to communicate and distribute drugs than we can even keep up with," Nowels said. "Our drug dealers are all too often allowed to operate in secrecy. This is a significant issue in every community in this country. We need help to hold people accountable who are poisoning our children."

The event brought together two issues — the fentanyl crisis and reining in tech companies — that are sure to be a focus in the next two years for McMorris Rodgers, who leads a committee whose broad jurisdiction includes health care and internet regulations.

"We've seen numerous reports detailing how big tech encourages addictive behaviors in our children to keep them glued to their screens," she said, "and fails to protect their users from malicious actors on their platforms like drug dealers, targeting vulnerable populations with counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances."

One of those platforms, Snapchat, was in the crosshairs of Wednesday's panel, which also featured two attorneys who have sued the platform's parent company, Snap Inc., and the mother of a 14-year-old boy who died from an overdose after using Snapchat to buy a counterfeit pill that contained fentanyl.

Amy Neville, a resident of Orange County, California, told the lawmakers that Snapchat — popular with teens and known for its disappearing messages — let her son Alex "overcome the natural limits that keep most kids from trying the hardest drugs."

"With Snapchat, Alex's normal circle of friends expanded further and began intersecting with abnormal circles," Neville said. "It was on Snapchat that Alex was able to visit with dealers and other users. It was on Snapchat that he set up a deal to get pills."

Carrie Goldberg, a New York-based lawyer whose firm is suing Snap, said the company's app is uniquely responsible for accidental fentanyl deaths.

"What you're going to hear today is that almost all fentanyl poisonings have three things in common," said Goldberg, who grew up in Aberdeen, Washington. "No. 1, the purchaser was a teenager. No. 2, they had no intention of buying fentanyl but thought that they were purchasing something recreational. And No. 3, the transaction occurred through the online platform Snapchat."

Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney at the Seattle-based Social Media Victims Law Center, which is also involved in the litigation against Snap, said her firm represents the families of 47 children harmed by fentanyl overdoses, 43 of whom died.

In a statement, Snap spokesman Pete Boogaard said the company works with law enforcement and uses artificial intelligence to identify drug dealing on its platform.

"We are committed to doing our part to fight the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers' accounts," Boogaard said. "We block search results for drug-related terms, redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of fentanyl. We continually expand our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of dealers' activities across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior. We will continue to do everything we can to tackle this epidemic, including by working with other tech companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits."

While the other witnesses focused on Snapchat, Nowels told the lawmakers the problem is bigger than any single platform. When drug dealers find out one company is cooperating with law enforcement, he said, they simply switch to a different messaging app.

Snap uses machine -learning technology and works with the Drug Enforcement Agency and other experts, the company said, to identify illicit drug-related content and removed about 90% of such content before users report it. It also coordinates with Meta — the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — and blocks Snapchat accounts belonging to people who use another platform to sell illegal drugs.

The discussion pointed to broader problems McMorris Rodgers and her committee will try to solve during this session of Congress, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee.

Part of a 1996 law, known as Section 230, gives tech companies sweeping authority to police content on their platforms while shielding them from legal liability for that same content. Both Democrats and Republicans want to change that law, but the parties disagree on what reforms should look like.

Nowels said part of the challenge facing law enforcement is that many chat platforms don't retain data long enough for investigators to retrieve evidence of crimes. Yet McMorris Rodgers and others on her committee are seeking to pass legislation that would minimize the data tech companies are allowed to keep. Snap said it retains drug-related data for 90 days, while other data is deleted from its servers sooner.

Nowels called on the lawmakers to pass legislation that would require tech companies to retain data and cooperate promptly with investigators. The sheriff said his department gets access to only about half of the social media accounts it requests for evidence in criminal investigations.

Congress may not be the only federal entity putting pressure on Snap over its role in fentanyl sales. Also on Wednesday, Bloomberg News reported that the FBI and Department of Justice are investigating Snapchat's use in drug deals that resulted in overdose deaths, citing anonymous sources.

Although expectations for bipartisan legislating are low in the current session of Congress, with Republicans in the House majority and Democrats controlling the Senate, both parties have shown an appetite for reining in tech companies. Last July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 53-2 to advance a sweeping data privacy bill, which then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., chose not to bring to the floor for a vote.

In the new session of Congress, any new tech regulation bills will need to go through the committees led by Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers, who are sure to be key players in the months ahead.

© 2023 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.