Criminal drug networks based in Mexico and local dealers in the Garden State are now using social media apps to help distribute and sell millions of fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl to users in New Jersey and other states.

And according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, in many cases they’re using emoji code in their social media messaging.

Not harmless fun

DEA New Jersey special Agent Tim McMahon said drug suppliers are stringing together emojis to share information about what supplies they’ve got, or what deliveries will be made, and “a lot of times a parent may look at a cell phone and just see a string of 4 or 5 emojis next to each other and not pay any attention to it, but it could be a signal of potentially some type of communication.”

Courtesy Townsquare Media/DEA
Townsquare Media/DEA
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He said drug networks are always looking for new ways to communicate without being detected.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now with all of the various social media apps that are out there, they’re using these as a means of communication.”

He said 25 years ago they were communicating using pagers, then they switched to cell phones, then chat features on online video gaming systems, and now they’re passing information along using sites like Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram that anyone with a smartphone can easily access.

The pills look real but they're deadly

He stressed the pills coming into the Garden State look almost exactly like Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Xanax and others, but they may contain fentanyl and “approximately 2 mg is enough to cause a fatal overdose.”

Townsquare Media/DEA
Townsquare Media/DEA
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McMahon pointed over the past year, “DEA has seized more than 15,000 pounds of fentanyl, that equates to approximately 440 million potential lethal doses.”

The problem starts in China

He said most of the fentanyl being confiscated is produced in China then shipped to Mexico where it is processed into bulk shipments or individual pills.

People who get hooked on prescription painkillers will look for their supply on the streets “and once you start doing that, the user will have absolutely no idea whether it’s an actual legitimate pharmaceutical pill,” he said.

Townsquare Media/DEA
Townsquare Media/DEA
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New Jersey is on pace to exceed 3,200 drug overdose deaths in 2021, the highest yearly total ever recorded.

McMahon said some of the messaging tools that are on different social media sites will automatically erase a message once it's sent, so it is not traceable.

Townsquare Media/DEA
Townsquare Media/DEA
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He said the DEA is working with social media companies to help them identify this type of illegal activity so it can be stopped.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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