Tech has changed so much about the world, including how drugs like fentanyl get trafficked in the US, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator Anne Milgram.
“I think it’s fair to say that technology has transformed our whole world, and it’s transformed drug trafficking,” Milgram told Yahoo Finance at the 2023 Milken Global Conference, adding: “Especially social media — just the fact that within a few clicks on your phone, you can go onto these social media platforms and get a pill delivered to your doorstep. That absolutely has changed how quickly and anonymously this can work.”
One reason for this is that social media has solved a “last mile problem” for cartels, Milgram explained.
“They’ve got to get that drug into someone’s hands,” she said. “It’s that last mile, which is how a drug cartel that’s making fentanyl pills in Mexico gets to a teenager… and social media has made it so much more anonymous.”
“A young person will walk into their room, and open up their phone or computer… but that same young person would be really hesitant to walk into an open air drug market and buy heroin like they would have had to 20 years ago,” Milgram added. “It’s a totally different world.”
According to the CDC, 107,375 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings between January 2021 and January 2022, and 67% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
When someone dies from a drug poisoning, investigating agents will often, very early on, access their phones and social media accounts.
“Our agents will go out and they’ll access the victim’s phone, and we’ll find the deal on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or TikTok,” Milgram said.
It’s also a cross-platform endeavor, as one transaction can move through many different apps.
“Drug traffickers are often on multiple social media sites and payment apps,” Milgram said. “Social media makes people feel connected for life.”
However, as much as tech has been successfully leveraged by cartels, it can also be a way to spread awareness, according to Milgram.
“I think tech could play a huge role in awareness, and I think it has to be part of that conversation,” she said. “Anything that tech can do to spread the word is vital. A young person thinks they’re buying oxycontin or Xanax, but they don’t know that they’re buying fentanyl. Six out of ten times, that can be potentially deadly.”
The DEA is also evolving to keep up with the pace of change, Milgram said.
“We think about globalization and how it’s changed the entire world — the cartels have just evolved their entire business model to harness encrypted applications, social media, and cryptocurrency,” she said. “They’ve taken everything they do and adapted it, whether it’s recruiting couriers on social media or selling the pills on social media apps… So a big part of what we’re doing is transforming the DEA to have the data and technology, so we are as prepared as possible to meet this threat.”
Recently, Milgram and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco held a meeting with senior leadership at several tech companies. Though conversations have been ongoing for some time between Big Tech and the DEA, the meeting was in-person and, in many ways, the first of its kind.
“Our message was that this is an emergency and we need them to do more, like make zero tolerance part of their policy,” she said.
Allie Garfinkle is a Senior Tech Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @agarfinks and on LinkedIn.
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