When I was younger, people bought drugs from friends. On particularly invincible nights out, they bought drugs from sketchy men in dark corners of the club. Today, the possibilities are limitless. Since 2010, the internet has facilitated countless illicit drug transactions, when the year-old “Adamflowers” marketplace moved onto the darknet and rebranded as “The Farmer’s Market,” the first major darknet marketplace for drugs. In early 2011, Silk Road opened for business and darknet marketplaces proliferated across the web. With every round of busts, the marketplace operators, vendors, and buyers learn from the mistakes of others and find new ways to protect themselves from arrest or from being ripped off. Right now, customers are buying product off Instagram, Grindr, Tinder, Whisper, Yik Yak, and more. These days, if a smartphone app is social and location-based, you can guarantee there’s a dealer near you.

But proximity doesn’t guarantee anything for the consumer. Social media apps offer little information to go by when deciding which hashtag-riddled account of Snoop Dogg memes is going to have the better product. On the street, customers and dealers can read each other face-to-face. On outlets like Silk Road, there’s feedback and reviews of buyers and sellers.

In the new, app-based drug economy, there is no reliable method for either party to establish a positive reputation. On top of that, it’s an environment with little incentive for dealers to transact honestly. So, how do you cop online without getting burned? And, if you’re dealing, how do you cultivate a reputable image that buyers can trust?

In conversations with dealers and buyers, a trend emerges among the stories of smooth transactions. Popular hashtags, like #Kush4Sale or #OGKush, are important, and a good place to start. Some users post requests but that’s the easiest way to get scammed or arrested, so, if you’re trying to buy, you’re better off searching for sellers and messaging them directly.

After hashtags come imagery—most posts selling weed use one of the following: neon fractals and bright color washes; big piles or mason jars of nugs; semi-naked young women hitting massive bongs and dutches. Emojis can be reputable indicators, too—look out for any of the following: 🌲🍁💨👌. For all drugs, 🔥 indicates quality; 🚀 is a claim to potency; and dollar signs indicate the product is for sale.

On Whisper, a messaging app that allows users to send and receive messages anonymously, two weed dealers—Tony and Jessie [Ed. note: All names in this story have been changed.]—agreed to talk with me about their operations. Tony has been selling for nearly 10 years and said he posts pictures and then decides who to serve based on customer behavior. “I try to appeal to pretty much anyone that ain’t too sketchy,” he says. For Tony, sketchiness announces itself with “weird-ass messages” or “act[ing] nervous.” He guarantees his own safety by always carrying a gun.

“I don’t trust anyone…. I don’t wanna end up dead and chopped on a corner,” he says. “I try to distance myself with shitty [customers]. I used to sling rock when I was in the set, but when my fam was in a drive-by I stopped.”

Whether Tony was legit or playing a character is unclear, but his understanding of the business side of this underground economy is not. Tony, like many others, doesn’t actually sell online: “I post up ads online and sell offline. If I sell online, that’s suicide,” he explains. “Better to have a guy point a gun at you than the DEA have proof.” Offline, a dealer like Tony could get busted for any immediate transaction, but he would only be charged with that one crime; with digital evidence, he could wind up being prosecuted for deals conducted months or even years ago, despite those transactions not having been directly observed.  

Indeed, in the indictment and at the trial for Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the former operator of Silk Road, prosecutors detailed the evidence obtained from his laptop—chat logs with his team and with vendors on the site; transaction records for vendors and buyers; extensive financial records; and Ulbricht’s personal journal. In the case of Garnett Smith, one of Baltimore’s biggest drug dealers, the DEA finally caught up with him through his Instagram photos of gold bricks, fast cars, and designer gear—for which he had no other source of income. His conspicuous wealth provided evidence of the size of his drug operation. And this is what scares Tony and others like him—not getting caught in a single deal, but having a small bust roll into charges for a lifetime’s dealing thanks to the records logged in your phone or on the servers at Instagram or Snapchat.

I don’t trust anyone…. I don’t wanna end up dead and chopped on a corner.

Still, there are indisputable benefits to app-based dealing: safety and greater visibility. Street-level drug dealers are more likely to get busted than those who deliver to customers in their homes and offices. Tony’s practice of advertising on apps exposes his business to more customers while allowing him to partially screen potential clients from a distance.

As a precaution, most dealers only use these platforms for advertising and work out the transaction details via Kik, a chatting app; the main difference is not between the various apps but between the two general styles of dealer found on these apps. There are those like Tony who advertise for face-to-face transactions and others who advertise for online transactions.

Jessie, the second Whisper dealer I spoke with, claims to have been in the game for a while, and though he was less talkative than Tony, he carefully described how he deals weed and “other things.”

“I mix it up, online and face-to-face,” he says. “I can tell if a [customer] is worth dealing with depending on what they want. I can tell by their attitude and demeanor. Body language says a lot, too.” Unlike Tony, Jessie is willing to take online payments but admitted that “online is riskier.”

His posts on the app are simpler than most, just a photo of some weed and maybe a few words on the strain. “I never straight up say I’m selling,” he says. He also uses “different accounts and nicknames”—for security purposes and publicity. When I asked how he inspired customers to trust him, or if he did anything in particular to build reputation, he replied, “Do I try? No. People come to me cuz I make sure my weed is good shit, and my prices aren’t outrageous. If I got bad shit, I’ll tell ‘em it’s not good but with enough they can get high, and I’ll cut deals if the weed isn’t good.”

When a customer logs into an app like Whisper looking to score, the person faces a barrage of marketing strategies. A search of a few common terms—420, OG Kush, Kush4Sale—leads you to confessions from teens about getting high, lonely users seeking stoned hookups (“420 and chill”), individuals looking for drugs to buy, and dealers.

“PLATINUM OG ON DECK TOP SHELF MEDICAL KUSH. Will show pics for insured quality. Hmu,” goes one post. Another advertises “OG Kush PM” with a string of emojis—the flame emoji, followed by the Christmas tree emoji, and so on. “I got the indoor OG Kush Hmu That’s it in the pic,” explains a third. Most dealers are location-based, preferring to deliver for cash. Others rely on old-fashioned postal service and require e-payment. As Jessie admits, payment options like Venmo are the obvious choice for many, but because these transactions can appear publicly (unless you change your settings) it puts the entire enterprise at risk, as happened last year to a group of kids at Columbia University. A sophomore English major-slash-dealer who asked buyers to disguise their payments with “funny” captions was busted when these same descriptions ended up tipping off the cops. No one was laughing when the NYPD showed up.

One buyer I spoke with on the phone is a friend of a friend, a college student named Charlotte, who is based in a suburban metropolitan area in the Northeast. She decided to try acid “as like a bucket list sorta thing,” and went to Yik Yak to score. It didn’t work out.

“Both times, the acid wasn’t real,” she said. “It was just a piece of paper.” As a result, she’s back to an old-school approach. “It costs less if you do it through friends,” she said, “and you’re more likely to get what you wanted.”

Another buyer I spoke to on the phone, named Max, based in a large Southern city, bought ketamine from someone he encountered on Grindr. As he put it: “I wasn’t on Grindr looking for K—I was on Grindr and found K.”

It costs less if you do it through friends and you’re more likely to get what you wanted.

Though ketamine is his “recreational drug of choice,” he’d been having difficulty finding it. “I was looking for months,” he said, “and couldn’t tap into any source. One day I’m looking on Grindr and the dude’s name is an obvious K reference and the inscription is all dollar emojis. So I messaged him: ‘Yo, K?’”

The owner of the account said yes and asked for Max’s phone number and address. Soon after, a car showed up at the address Max had given (not his home address). In the car, the dealer gave Max “a small sample.”

The sample and car interaction boded well: “I was groovy after the bump in the car. We chatted briefly; the dealer said I was hot. I bought two bags and they left.” But the ketamine in the bags was not the same as the sample—a classic bait and switch. “A couple nights later I ended up going through pretty much all of what I bought,” Max said. “It wasn’t the same stuff.”

Max is an experienced drug user and buyer who believed his instincts would serve him well in any situation that might arise. “I wasn’t concerned about safety,” he said. “The dollar signs told me he sells. I know how this works, so I have some cockiness. Worst case, there’s a gun or a knife and they take everything. I gave a fake address, and so we met on a well-lit street near bars. There were tons of people around; I only carried the cash I needed. There was another dude in the car with him and everyone was on K, including the driver. And I was drunk enough [that] I was just like, ‘Yeah.’”

Charlotte protected herself, too, by meeting in a public space and giving the dealer a vague description: “I’m wearing a gray hoodie.” Her reasoning was that, “You know there’ll be other people wearing a gray hoodie and so if you’re uncomfortable you can run away.” And the dealers she met also took precautions. She said, “Sometimes the person will ask for proof that you are a student...saying things like, ‘Could you send a picture of your [college] ID?’ You can take a screenshot and blur out your name and part of your face.”

Charlotte’s not interested in using Whisper to buy drugs again, but explained that if she had to, it wouldn’t be difficult “as long as you’re a woman who might seem attractive.” Max hasn’t been dissuaded. “I wouldn’t use that guy again,” he said, “but I would use Grindr again [for K].”