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Teens are using emoji and secret lingo to find illegal drugs. How parents can crack the code

What parents need to know about the secret language of drugs online.
/ Source: TODAY

Teens are buying drugs via popular social media platforms and text messaging, often right under their parents’ noses. Experts are decoding the secret terms and emojis used in deals that can be deadly.

Becca Schmill, 18, of Needham, Mass. loved playing guitar and visiting presidential libraries and she was college bound, having been accepted into the University of Richmond in Virginia. 

But underneath that “funny, adventurous and determined” energy, Becca was using drugs, her parents said. In September 2020, Becca died from an accidental overdose, after using drugs laced with fentanyl. 

“We didn’t realize just how easy it was for her to have drugs delivered basically to our door,” Becca’s father, Stu Schmill, told NBC News anchor Kate Snow on Tuesday. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is “a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent."

Becca used a shorthand to find drugs through social media, her parents said.

Related: Here's what's really happening on social media

According to a May research letter published in JAMA, the overdose death rate for adolescents almost doubled in 2020, then rose by an additional 20 percent in 2021. As reported by NBC News, many of those deaths stemmed from fentanyl.

The emoji drug code

Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a parental guide to deciphering the "Emoji Drug Code," a graphic bearing popular symbols repurposed for drug deals.

For example, a pill emoji symbolizes drugs like Percocet, Adderall, or Oxycodone, heroin is depicted with a snake or a brown heart and cocaine is a snowflake. The emblem for marijuana is palm or pine tree.

And dealers indicate large batches of drugs with a cookie symbol while high-potency substances are represented with bomb or rocket emojis.


"Fake prescription pills, commonly laced with deadly fentanyl and methamphetamine, are often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms," the federal agency warns.

Becca's parents shared with TODAY a screenshot illustrating lingo used by their daughter on Snapchat, months before her death: "I'm tweakin.' Need some stronger mgs." The responding offer: “Oxy 15s.”

Eric Feinberg, the vice president of content moderation at the non-profit Coalition for a Safer Web, shared more common verbiage used in drug deals.

"The word 'plug' means 'hook me up'" with drugs," Feinberg told TODAY Parents. And misspelled words like "pilz" (pills), "xanaz" (Xanax), "cush" (marijuana) facilitate open discussion without triggering social media safeguards, he said.

Five years ago, Feinberg created a fake Instagram account to follow and exchange direct messages with suspected drug dealers. He showed TODAY advertisements for popular exercise equipment, a major streaming service, children's entertainment and fast food.

Andrew Sussman, CEO of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, said advertisers risk ads running alongside drug-related content. "There’s no perfect filter," he told Snow.

In the meantime, says Becca's mother Deb Schmill, "Our daughter is the consequence. And how many more Beccas are there before those in control take responsibility for this?"

In response to TODAY's request for comment, a spokesperson from Snapchat told TODAY:

“We explicitly prohibit any activity related to illicit drug sales on Snapchat, and we are determined to bring all our resources to bear to make our platform a hostile environment for drug dealers. We use cutting edge technologies to proactively detect this type of content so we can shut down dealers’ accounts and block them from trying to create new ones. We also work with drug enforcement agencies, and with third-party intelligence experts that scan other platforms for illicit drug content that references Snapchat, so we can take swift action to find and ban those dealers’ accounts.”

Additionally, an Instagram spokesperson said in a statement:

"We prohibit the sale of illicit drugs on Instagram and have developed technology to find and remove this content proactively. In 2022, we actioned on 1.8 million pieces of drug content, of which 96% was proactively detected before anyone reported it to us. We have disabled the accounts in question and will continue making improvements to keep people safe on Instagram."

Related: Should kids have smartphones? Debate grows on mental health impact