Instagram has ushered in a golden age for the drug trade.

You read that correctly: Thousands of accounts — perhaps many more — are currently selling marijuana, prescription pills, ecstasy, and other narcotics in the Internet equivalent of an open-air drug market. It operates like the notorious Silk Road (a marketplace for anonymous, and often illicit, trade) — except it’s a thousand times more user-friendly, and it hasn’t been shut down.

Across thousands of photo and video posts, you can browse, buy, and sell drugs with near-airtight security. The posts aren’t blurred, age-gated, or otherwise sequestered from Instagram’s audience of 200 million. This market is only growing. And Facebook — Instagram’s owner — has also never publicly acknowledged it.

If you’re curious, just do a hashtag search — try “#xanax,” for example. You’ll be greeted by a list of hashtags spanning more than 100,000 images just for this particular substance. Many of these images are “legitimate” inasmuch as they just portray drug use. But mixed within are posts with product for sale. With an untraceable money transfer or Bitcoin transaction, you can have a shipment on your doorstep in days, via the U.S. Post Office or other delivery service. Some users even claim to deliver overnight.

Our investigation reveals that these sales are not isolated incidents. The sheer number of posts involved indicates a market that’s at least large and organized enough to mimic any other emerging niche on the social network. Let’s start with a few photographs.

All of the photos below are public and easily searchable. Some have hundreds or thousands of likes and followers. Our sampling, a portion of the approximately 500 posts we’ve collected, offers just a taste of the exhaustive variety and scale at which Instagram’s community of dealers and buyers thrive.

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A social network as big as Instagram — or Facebook, with 1.2 billion people actively using it at least once a month — is bound to attract the full range of human activity, legal and illegal, moral and immoral. Earlier this year, we discovered widespread gun-sales activity on Facebook, some of it apparently in violation of local and federal laws (governing gun sales to minors, for instance). Facebook eventually responded by clarifying its policies.

So far, it hasn’t made a similar move with Instagram and drug sales.

How it works

Last week, we revealed in detail how drug dealers are using tech to safely peddle their inventory on one of the most widely used apps in the world. With minimal investment, cautious dealers can conduct their business in broad daylight with almost complete anonymity.

To be clear, transactions don’t actually happen on Instagram. As with gun sales on Facebook, Instagram is being used as a marketing platform for transactions that are completed elsewhere — for instance, via Bitcoin.

Some dealers list their burner cell phone number or burner email, but many use the popular messaging app Kik, which offers relatively anonymous messaging without the hassle of phone numbers or other self-identifying information.

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The market is also self-regulating. Hundreds of accounts are remarkably dedicated to unmasking scammers. It can be difficult to tell who is legitimately selling product and who isn’t, judging by our own observations, and these accounts have popped up to sort it out. Snoop around and you’ll find heated arguments in the comment sections — claims of false accusations, passionate defenses, rumor, evidence, heckling, and threats. Riveting stuff.

On the images below, you’ll see these scam-busting accounts stamping their posts with “scam” or “legit.”

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Often these accounts employ hashtags that don’t relate to their business. Some use benign, popular tags like #instagood, or #ifollowback, or even pop ephemera like #rihanna. Sometimes it’s an appeal to target demographics. Sometimes it’s a wide net cast to catch as many eyeballs as possible. In a word, this is marketing.

The market is also big, and it’s constantly growing.

By the numbers

Without hard numbers from Instagram, we can’t fully know the scope of this issue. We independently discovered dozens of hashtags covering over a quarter of a million images involving the sale and consumption of illicit drugs — a large sample, yes, but hardly exhaustive. Even though many images may have multiple hashtags, it’s clear that a large number of photos are involved. Even if just one percent of the thousands of photos were suspect, that figure should raise the eyebrows of Instagram’s legal team.

Brand-name hashtags, the kind any teenager might know, are particularly active and accessible on Instagram; the number of posts tagged with #xanax, for example, grows at a rate of over 100 photos per day, according to our observations. Niche groupings, like #overnightdelivery and #ohiocartel, can grow by just a few posts a day, but offer easier access to those with a clear intent to sell to or scam Instagram’s millions of users.

For a small sampling of what’s out there, here’s a select collection of hashtags which are associated with thousands of publicly accessible photos on Instagram. At the time this story was published, every single one of these hashtags were open, active, and searchable. These hashtags also show that the market is somewhat skewed in favor of certain items.

The drugs for sale on Instagram are generally name-brand and crowd favorites: marijuana, prescription pills, and liquid promethazine-codeine cough syrup are the heavy favorites. Xanax, Adderall, and Oxycodone are among the most popular pills, as well as some synthetic addiction-management treatments like Suboxone and Subutex. MDMA, LSD, and ketamine are also easy to find.

But if you want niche or experimental stuff like peyote, 2cb and DMT, Instagram is lacking. For those drugs, you need to head to the darknet, the vast and treacherous “anonymous Internet” unreachable by search engines.

Harder narcotics like PCP, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin also appear to be very rare on Instagram, yet all of these substances have long been available across the darknet on Silk Road clones. As a result, Instagram and darknet markets seem settled and diversified, almost like the CD selection at Best Buy versus an indie record store.

Our research matched the results of a similar survey conducted by the Coalition for Drug Abuse Prevention, although that organization used a much smaller sample size. The CDAP’s breakdown of 50 dealer accounts on Instagram showed that about 80 percent sold marijuana. Only 20 percent of dealers offered Xanax, painkillers, and MDMA.

Although marijuana sits among the most highly referenced drugs on Instagram, the increasingly legal recreational use of marijuana in the U.S. led us to omit the drug almost entirely from our study. Hashtags like #weed are blocked from displaying in search results, but posts tagged with #kush and #420 number in the tens of millions. Among our 36 randomly selected hashtags, up to 75 percent of them referenced pills. The remaining 25 percent referenced marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy, Molly, and amphetamines.

Facebook’s response

Throughout our reporting, VentureBeat repeatedly asked Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, for comment. Our key question was — and still is — simple: How many staffers handle this messy issue on a proactive, full-time basis?

Its responses weren’t exactly satisfactory. Numerous back-and-forth resulted in the following boilerplate statement [emphasis ours]:

If you are reported for sharing prohibited or illegal content, including photographs or videos of extreme violence or gore, your account may be disabled and we will take appropriate action, which may include reporting you to the authorities. Additionally, it is neither possible nor permitted to complete transactions involving regulated goods on our platform. If your photos or videos are promoting the sale of regulated goods or services, including firearms, alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, or adult products, we expect you to make sure you’re following the law and to encourage others to do the same.

This is the thinnest of defenses. For a tech company that commonly operates as a de facto marketplace, it’s an abdication of responsibility. There’s little doubt that Instagram has its eye on mobile shopping, especially with apps like Spring cropping up. If Instagram actually wants to legitimize its own marketplace, though, it has a lot of dark corners to clean up first.

Like it or not, Instagram has also increasingly appeared in splashy headlines about massive law enforcement operations. The Drug Enforcement Administration has used Instagram to bring down international drug cartel members, and the NYPD used it to conduct the biggest gun bust in their department’s history. The language contained in Instagram’s Community Guidelines doesn’t match the grave, real-world uses of their technology.

When contacted for comment, the DEA declined to disclose the extent to which it uses Instagram as a tool to enforce federal law. Barbara Carreno, a spokesperson for the administration, said, “We go wherever we need to. Wherever the traffickers are going, we go.”

Facebook ran into similar problems earlier this year when we showed how easy it was to buy guns using their service. In that story, we quoted a sheriff who reiterated just how untraceable these transactions can be — especially cashless transactions between unregistered, unlicensed people.

“That’s how I would do it,” he said of an illegal Facebook gun buy. “If this thing were to show up at a murder scene, it would be near impossible to trace.”

Unlike gun sales, which are legal with some restrictions, drug sales are flatly illegal but just as untraceable.

Instagram’s only line of defense, so far, seems to be reactive. In addition to user-submitted flagging, Instagram has repeatedly blocked specific hashtags from displaying in search results. Media attention also seems to trigger hashtag bans. For example, the “#XanaxForSale” hashtag featured in VentureBeat’s earlier story was blocked within 24 hours after publication. Hashtags relating to the sale of prescription cough syrup were similarly blocked after receiving media attention last year.

When alerted of this story ahead of publication, Facebook again directed us to its existing policies, and offered an additional statement:

We encourage people who come across content that they believe violates our terms to report it to us using the built-in reporting tools next to every photo or video on Instagram. A dedicated team reviews these reports and removes the content if it violates our guidelines.

Harrison Weber contributed to this story.

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