From Silk Road to Grindr: Buying and Selling Drugs on Social Media

The drug world is brave, new, and blowing up on Grindr.

“You a cop?” *Sofia asks.

“Promise I’m cool if you’re cool,” I type.

“Call me,” Sofia says, before sending over a phone number.  

Sofia is a drug dealer. She runs her direct-to-consumer business primarily over the gay hookup app Grindr, which is where we met moments before. She seemingly sells it all: Coke, molly, crystal––even weed, when she can find a good deal. 

Friday night becomes Saturday morning as I drive north on La Brea. Ten minutes later, I'm in the lower Hollywood Hills, above the traffic and tourists. I park in front of an old apartment building. 

Tonight, I’m mostly hoping to glean insight into one of many realms of the digital drug trade. The ability to curate an anonymous image and personal brand over social media offers a perceived layer of protection for both drug buyers and sellers. Avatar-to-avatar trading represents opportunity for the new street dealer.

A Mic report chronicling the emerging chemical market on apps such as Grindr, cites drug-fueled “Chemsex” orgy parties in the gay community as one of the forces driving app-based trafficking in New Zealand and Australia. Transactions and deals are made using coded language and lots of emojis

“On gay apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Jack'd, users have developed their own elaborate system of slang terms to find others looking to ‘party and play.’ Other frequently used codes include phrases like ‘get to the point’ and ‘blowing clouds’ or even unnecessarily capitalizing the letter ’T’ in your Grindr profile (meth is frequently known as ’T’ or ‘Tina’). This is a culture that operates in plain sight, with minimal monitoring or accountability from admins or app developers.”

Back in Hollywood, Sofia gets into the passenger seat of my car. We greet one another with a hug and cautious glances. She looks me up and down; I do the same to her. She seems harmless, almost more nervous than I am. 

Which makes sense; in California, selling drugs is no joke. According to Shouse California Law Group: "The [sale of methamphetamine] carries a potential penalty of up to four years in county jail, and up to $10,000 in fines." 

Penalties for possession charges are less severe, but criminalize drug users all the same. 

I tell Sofia that I’m not looking for chemicals, which confuses her. I tell her I’m a writer. I ask her to tell me what it’s like to sell drugs on the Internet. 

Sofia grills me again. “You’re not a cop?”

“No. I write about weed. And sometimes other drugs.”

She asks for a cigarette. Then doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. I tell her I'll still pay her for her time.

“You can drive me to the store." Sofia finally says. "When we’re done."

I light her cigarette. We sit on the hood of my car. 

“I use [Grindr, to find clients,] because it’s like free advertising,” she says. “It’s easier.”

The initial, non-tangible veil that exists between buyer and seller via mobile app gives both sides of the deal comfort in not having to make rash, on-the-spot, decisions. Street-buy scenarios can be quickstepped into a robbery or a bust. When first contact is made within the app, everyone can take a step back and evaluate the stranger on the other end before moving forward with any illegal transaction. That's the theory, at least.

“It just feels safer on my phone,” Sophia says. “I've only ever done it online."

The dealer is reluctant to tell me much more. Still, her willingness to meet a complete stranger in the middle of the night corroborates the current narrative: If you’re looking to buy or sell hard drugs, it can happen in less than an hour through Grindr. 

Image via PRX.org

Perhaps we're all more willing to meet strangers online to supply us with illegal drugs because strangers already drive us to work and bring us our meals.

Sophia and I share a joint before parting. “Save my number,” she says. 

Grindr is only one mobile app among a growing list of digital platforms used to trade drugs. Sofia is only one of many Internet-savvy dealers whose supply is in high demand.

A 2016 study conducted by Massey University's Illicit Drug Monitoring System found that 73 percent of participants had purchased drugs over social media apps. Nearly 37 percent of respondents said they regularly use encrypted websites to procure their fix. 

Launched in 2011, the Silk Road became the face of Internet black markets and peer-to-peer pharmacies. Buyers and vendors exchanged bitcoin through this dark web and global drug bazaar for illicit goods and services ranging from ill-gotten Netflix passwords to massive quantities of illegal narcotics. An investigation involving multiple government agencies eventually shut down the Silk Road, but it left its mark. 

Image via mpcwatkins/VSCO

The site’s alleged mastermind, Ross William Ulbricht saw the Silk Road as a means of facilitating “victimless crimes” that would have otherwise taken place on the street, in the line of fire. 

Pressure was placed on Silk Road vendors to maintain a positive reputation via buyer-determined rating system––like that of a rideshare driver. The potential to get kicked out of the community, to lose your tent in the online swap meet, weeded out many scammers and to some degree kept people honest.

After the site was seized, Ulbricht received a lifelong prison sentence, and numerous Silk Road imitators stepped in to try to fill the void of peer-to-peer digital-age drug pedaling.

Image placed on original Silk Road after FBI seized the website. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Agora. Acropolis. Outlaw. Oasis. Cryptomarket. Valhalla. The Silk Road 2.0.

Some of these sites met the same fate as Ulbricht’s Silk Road, or packed up shop in the middle of the night with stolen bitcoin in tow. Others are said to be still active can be fairly easy to find.

From Wired:

“The result has been that the libertarian free-trade zone that the Silk Road once stood for has devolved into a more fragmented, less ethical, and far less trusted collection of scam-ridden black market bazaars.”

Users don't even need to know what Tor browser is to locate black-market economies just below the surface of Kik, Instagram, Facebook, Craigslist, Tinder, and pretty much anywhere else humans are connecting online with other humans.

An informal study performed by the harm reduction group Coalition Against Drug Abuse (CADA), uncovered drug-trade operations thriving in plain sight on Instagram:

“We found 50 Instagram dealer accounts in the scope of a day, simply by searching for different hashtags like #weed4sale. . . In less time than it takes a person to check their Facebook news feed, we had downloaded KiK, set up an account, messaged a dealer, and received a response back.”

Instagram is more-or-less a marquee on which dealers advertise their blockbuster buy:  Re-up. Take an artfully composed image of the work. Upload it to Instagram. Let the customers come to you. 

“The most popular items in [our pool of dealers’] stock included marijuana, prescription painkillers, xanax, molly (MDMA), and lean (codeine syrup mixture),” CADA says.

Orders come into Instagram dealers through direct messages and comments––and the transaction logistics spill over into ancillary messaging apps, such as Kik. Payments differ from person-to-person, day-to-day, and go down via cash, Venmo, bitcoin, PayPal, etc. 

Instagram’s Community Guidelines are straightforward in forbidding the advertising and sale of illegal drugs on the platform, and the site is said to routinely block hashtags it deems no-chill, or might be associated with people slanging drugs online.

But online policing can't be everywhere all the time. Don't expect a row of tech-serfs in cubicles to keep up with the entrepreneurial ingenuity behind shifting supply lines and a fluid clientele. Illicit drug markets of the past were tied to physical locations––local street corners or entire cities. The next wave of freelance narcotics commerce is online, and it is here now. 

*Names of sources withheld to protect personal identity.