FF12 Investigation: Smartphone app drug sales

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 9:20 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A new trend in how people buy drugs has made it easier than ever. A few clicks on a smartphone and they can be delivered right to your door. What you get though, may not be what you think, and it can be deadly.

“Buy now”, “pay now,” “watch now.” The Internet and social media have made just about anything a person wants no more than a click away, and that includes drugs. It’s become such an issue in Kansas, the division of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that oversees the state is launching a crackdown specifically targeting what it calls, “point and click” sales. The Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s St. Louis division, Todd Zimmerman, says the sales often involve young people who use apps like Snapchat to connect with dealers.

“Kids and young adults, teenagers as well, who are using apps on their phone to order drugs,” Zimmerman said. “Teenagers will go outside to the edge of the curb, and come right back in and go into the room and go to the basement, they ingest a pill, and they pass away.”

Overdoses are nothing new, but Zimmerman says the danger is more complex than that. Prescription medications like Xanax and Hydrocodone are among the most commonly abused pills, that Zimmerman says, some young people feel is safer than drugs like heroin or cocaine. That’s a common misconception that can prove deadly on it’s own, but even deadlier considering many of the “prescription” pills making their way into Kansas aren’t what they appear.

“A lot of times these aren’t the pharmaceutical brand Hydrocodone or Xanax,” he said. “They’re counterfeit Xanax pills or counterfeit Hydrocodone pills that have been laced with Fentanyl, which is very deadly.”

Zimmerman says fake pills, loaded with the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, and made to look exactly like actual pharmaceuticals, are flooding into Kansas via two Mexican cartels. he says the process begins in China where Fentanyl, or the ingredients to make it, are produced. From there it goes to Mexico, where the cartels press the Fentanyl powder into pills that appear to be Xanax, Hydrocodone or other popular drugs. Once made, smugglers carry it across the border to couriers who bring it into Kansas and pass it on to dealers...that get the fake pills to kids using apps like Snapchat.

Zimmerman says Snapchat is a popular app for dealing drugs because the app is designed to erase conversations immediately after they’re read. Anyone can message a dealer and set up an exchange without leaving a trace, leaving no evidence behind to tip off parents.

22 year old Brandon Kraus says his parents had not idea he was abusing drugs when he was a teenager. He says being able to buy drugs from a smartphone app presents a unique danger because it provides such easy access.

“Now one of the advantages of social media is instant messaging, and it just allows for instant transactions or whatever it may be,” Kraus said. “The first substance I ever tried was dextromethorphan it’s the main ingredient in the cough syrup brand Delsym and Robotusin.”

Cough syrup. Easy to get and highly addictive. That led to other, much harder drugs for Brandon, eventually derailing, not only his academic career, but also his passion, he’d hoped to turn into a career.

“Yeah, I’ve dropped out of college,” he said. “That’s what I went to school for. I was on college scholarship for bowling. That’s my passion.”

Something that started so simply, abusing cough syrup for an easy high, took Brandon’s dream of becoming a professional bowler and tossed it in the gutter.

Drug counselor and owner of the Caring Center in Wichita Peter Ninemire has seen many stories like Brandon’s.

“This is something that just can take over their life,” Ninemyer said.

Most of the stories he heard came long before the invention of smartphone apps that can make buying things like pharmaceutical pills even easier than buying cough syrup. A situation turning even deadlier adding fake pills, loaded with Fentanyl, to the equation.

According to the Sedgwick County Forensics Science Center, in 2019, Fentanyl was found in just over 20 percent of overdose deaths in the county. In 2020, that more than doubled to 43.3 percent. Seizures of fake pills containing Fentanyl have increased in the county as well.

“You can’t tell it’s laced with anything, and unfortunately I have seen a lot of overdoses and people in my circle that have been, unfortunately, passed away because of Fentanyl,” Kraus said.

The DEA says it’s working with apps like Snapchat to help catch those using it to sell drugs. Zimmerman says to keep a close eye on teenagers. Watch for a change in behavior and question any quick trips to meet a friend outside the home.

Brandon Kraus is now sober. He says he hopes to get back into school, become an addiction counselor and he still hopes to become a professional bowler.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or to learn more about how to speak with children about the issue, reach out to a qualified counselor at one of the links below.

Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas

The Caring Center of Wichita

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