The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is hosting an Opioid Summit today, June 27, 2018, in Washington D.C. Government entities, academic researchers, and advocacy groups are attending the event, as you’d probably expect. Unexpectedly, internet stakeholders, as well as senior executives from major search engines like Google and social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are also participating. Why would the FDA, led by Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., invite the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley to such an event? The answer, to combat illicit opioid sales over the internet.
Most people have heard or know a little bit about the “dark web;” home to multiple online marketplaces that allow people to exchange illicit goods. Users can peddle and procure just about anything in the far corners of the world wide web; and, those engaging in such activities are, theoretically, protected by proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs). Disguising one’s internet protocol (IP) address allows people to buy and sell things like heroin and counterfeit passports, evading the watchful eye of authorities, most of the time. You have probably heard about the dark web marketplace known as The Silk Road; if so, you know that the FBI shut it down and arrested its founder Ross Ulbricht in 2013. Ulbricht is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, which you’d be right to think should deter others from having similar aspirations. It didn’t!
Today, the internet is home to even more black marketplaces than before. The number of sales and profit generated on the most popular sites people now rely on for illicit goods dwarfs that of the preceding Silk Road, according to findings by RAND Europe and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
Hiding In Plain Sight
Not everyone looking to sell opioids online has the know-how to set up shop on the darknet. An even more significant number of people on the hunt for prescription painkillers or heroin do not understand how or have the tools to access dark marketplaces. Many people take a more cavalier approach to purvey and procure opioids over the internet; advertisements for online pharmacies abound on the plain old internet on search engines and social media sites. While some good many websites are scams to harvest private information from the naive, plenty of these sites make good on their promise.
Earlier this month, the FDA reached out to some 53 online pharmacies instructing them to cease and desist, or face severe legal consequences, Wired reports. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University shows that online illicit drug sale revenue increased from between $15 and $17 million in 2012 to between $150 and $180 million in 2015. Whether more people are acquiring their drugs from internet pharmacy sites or on the dark web is somewhat irrelevant, what is salient is how to stop the practice.
Addressing the problem of drug dealing on the web is more urgent than ever considering the rise of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, carfentanil, and U-47700 or Pinky. Dealers disguise the substances mentioned above as more popular and less dangerous opioids like OxyContin, and they carry an enormous risk of fatal overdose. On average, 115 Americans succumb to opioid misuse every day in the U.S.
Opioid Summit May Devolve Into A Blame Game
At this point, it is hard to tell what, if anything, will come out of the meeting in Washington today. Reports show that in the days leading up to the summit, tech representatives and lobbyist began tossing blame around. The Center for Safe Internet Prescribing (CSIP) released a report showing that majority of drug sales happen on the dark web, and that open web offers for opioids were more likely to be scams. Libby Baney, an advisor to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, argues otherwise to Wired:
If all drug sales happening on the internet were on the dark web, I'd throw a party. Then the vast majority of Americans would be safe."
Tim Mackey, an associate adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego, and fellow researchers found that online links on Twitter and Facebook offering up for sale illegal items originate on the darknet. Professor Mackey, who will speak at the summit, says:
What’s happening on the dark web is a lot of business-to-business sales. The digital drug dealers are sourcing from the dark web and using social media to sell directly to consumers.”
It’s worth noting that Facebook will direct users attempting to purchase opioids to addiction treatment resources, instead. Google played a significant role in the most recent National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. And, according to CSIP—which is backed by tech giants—117 million ads attempting to sell illicit goods were blocked last year.
Proactive Approaches to Opioid Use Disorder
Dark web, open web, prescribed by doctors or not; lives hang in the balance if significant corporations in the tech sector cannot work together with government agencies to stem the tide of opioid addiction in America. There is an opportunity here to put a stop to illicit online opioid sales. The problem is here, and we cannot afford to ignore it, the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report presenting incontrovertible evidence that average Americans can purchase illicit opioids online. Another report from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy shows that when searching online for prescription opioids, nearly 91 percent of the first search results led users to an illegal online drug seller offering prescription opioids—regardless of the search engine.
Social media companies, search engines, and domain registrars are in a unique position to nip, at least some of these kinds of practices, in the bud; not only redirecting people to addiction treatment services but having a hand in saving countless lives.
Opioid Use Disorder Treatment
If you or a loved is struggling with opioid use disorder, please contact PACE Recovery Center. We offer clients gender-specific, extended care treatment for males in the grips of progressive mental health disorders.
If you have suicidal ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255