Do your kids use emojis to talk about drugs?

The internet has become a hypermarket black market for dangerous drugs and fake prescription drugs sought after by children and adults, and dealers are using a myriad of coded emojis and slang to circumvent scrutiny, experts warn .

“Please educate yourselves, your children, your families and your friends,” said Mary Palmer, the mother of Ian Mackay, whose photo hangs on a billboard in Houston as an example of a boy who died after taking an unsuspected counterfeit pill. deadly fentanyl.

Parents need to monitor what their children are doing and monitor certain coded language and transactions, said William Kimbell, deputy special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Houston.

Based on information from the DEA and other sources, the Houston Chronicle has created a guide to help parents identify emoji codes, slang, and deals used on the drug black market.

How it works

The internet drug-selling game is a two-way street where customers can find specific drugs, but where dealers can also approach unsuspecting children.

“It’s very aggressive marketing,” said Timothy Mackey, CEO of S-3 Research, a National Institutes of Health-funded big data startup focused on machine learning algorithms to scan and decode the traffic language of drug used on social networks.

Anyone who searches social media for hashtags containing the name of drugs, including code and slang terms, will eventually find a dealer, Mackey said. Dealers also use intrusive marketing strategies, such as inserting sales pitches and emojis on forums and comment sections on internet platforms. Examples are comments where people complain about their struggles with opioids, medication needs, or YouTube videos on related topics.

Generally, buyers and sellers connect on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and others. They then move on to direct messaging apps with encrypted communications, including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and Wickr Me.

The DEA’s Kimbell said drug traffickers have turned cellphones into a one-stop shop for this traffic, including payments made with Venmo, CashApp, Remitly, Zelle and other one-click instant apps.

The emoji code

The DEA has identified emojis that are frequently used on the drug black market, but parents should pay attention to context as they are typically used in combination with slang, hashtags or comments such as the expression of desired moods.

Some emojis are universal for drug dealing, like the maple leaf. Emoticons with dollar signs, a crown, or a male electrical plug are common reseller advertising emoticons. Emojis depicting rockets, bombs, or explosions signal very strong drugs or good batches.

Certain emojis have become popular in this industry because their image may be related in some way to specific medications. One example is the use of snow emojis to convey cocaine by its street name. Green vegetables are associated with marijuana, a train emoji with amphetamines (or “Speed”) and candy with MDMA because the product looks like candy. Some emojis, like a banana for some opioids, can suggest “going bananas” or “sliding” in and out of consciousness. Such correlations are not always obvious.

Opioids: Prescription pills containing opioids are driving the opioid epidemic, and last year alone more than 100,000 people died from overdoses of these narcotics, including heroin and fentanyl. A child looking to “experiment” with a prescription pill can easily get similar counterfeit pills sold in the millions in US markets instead.

Other pills: Popular prescription drugs for teens and adults are antidepressants, or “depressants,” with Xanax among the favorites. On the other side of the mood-seeking spectrum are amphetamine-containing stimulants like Adderall.

Just like opioid drugs, these prescription drugs sold illegally on the black market can be fake. According to the DEA, 40% of counterfeit pills sold in US markets contain potent drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 10 times more potent than morphine.

Recreational drugs: Health statistics show that the rate of fatal overdoses has steadily increased among young people aged 15 to 24 over the past decade. So-called recreational drugs have also become what experts call Russian roulette because they also appear in DEA-tested batches mixed with other strong drugs. Psychoactive substances such as synthetic marijuana or fake weed have been linked to serious overdoses and deaths.

” Whites ” : Batman, Charlie, Christina and Scooby are not necessarily the nicknames of your teen’s friends. Much like a cute snowman emoji, they can hide something as sinister as a heavy drug.

Proactive parenting

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration recommends that parents have conversations with their children with five main goals:

1. To let them know that parents disapprove of underage drinking and non-prescription drug use. Surveys have shown that the majority of minors see their parents as their main influencers on this topic.

2. Reinforce that parents care about their health and success and how drugs can impact these goals.

3. Show that informed relatives, rather than friends, can be a good source to talk about their drug problems.

4. Show that parents pay attention to their behaviors because they care. Children are more likely to engage in unwanted behavior if they think no one will notice.

5. Develop adolescent skills and strategies to avoid making bad choices in difficult situations.

The agency has a mobile app called “Talk, They Hear You” to help parents.


Whether parents should monitor their children’s internet usage is debatable. Some parents and experts suggest that children should be trusted to make good choices on their own. Others emphasize parental responsibility for the safety of minors and recommend transparency in rules and supervision.

In addition to interactions on social networks, financial transactions carried out with telephone applications could provide good information on possible drug trafficking. Kimbell recommends looking for unexplained regular payments to the same user made with person-to-person payment apps, such as CashApp, Venmo, and others.

The DEA recently announced that the trafficking of drugs and fake pills in Houston was reaching “alarming” levels and said it was particularly concerned about the vulnerability of children and young people to drug overdoses.

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