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Home > Supervision > The 21st Century Substance Abuser: Cyberspace Intersecting with the Drug Culture

The 21st Century Substance Abuser: Cyberspace Intersecting with the Drug Culture

March 12th, 2011

On March 1, 2011, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) exercised its emergency scheduling authority to control five chemicals (JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497, and cannabicyclohexanol). These five chemicals are used to make what is referred to as “fake pot” products.  The resulting smoke-able herbal product brands, with such names as “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn”  were sold on the Internet and a variety of locations as legal substitutes for getting a a marijuana-like high.  The marketing and sale of these marijuana substitutes online represents just one way drug use is being impacted by the Internet. Community correctional professionals now need to become familiar with the cyberspace’s role in substance abuse behavior to be effective change agents.

The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) observed in 2002 that drug use facilitation appeared to be the most common drug-related activity on the Internet. NDIC categorized this facilitation as:

  • Use: Information is readily available online about the supposedly positive effects of drug use at the same time downplaying the negative effects.  Information is also presented on how to use readily available products, such as cold medications, in order to get “high.”  The sites also frequently explain drug use terminology and slang, thereby acclimating individuals to drug culture.
  • Production:  Some Internet sites provide recipes for individuals to produce their own cocktails of abuse.  These sites often times include not only the ingredients but where to obtain them as well as the how to get the production equipment. Unfortunately, misinformation is not unusual, which can lead to serious injury/illness or death.
  • Sale: Individuals can easily search online for drug suppliers or as noted above drug substitutes. Sites marketing drugs with no prescription needed are not usual.

Many of NDIC observations seem valid even today. A small 2005 study found 12 patients (9 male, 3 female) 100% reported that Internet-based information had affected the ways in which they had used psychoactive substances. Additionally, eight of these respondents described adopting behaviors intended to minimize the risks associated with psychoactive substance use. The respondents also reported changes in the use of a wide variety of illicit substances as well as over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals based upon their online research. 

Leinwand (2007) also cited a study that found 10 million online messages written by teens in 2006 showed they regularly chat about drinking alcohol, smoking pot, partying and hooking up. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also concluded in 2010 that “Social networking sites provide information from teens on their personal experiences on how to get high with prescription drugs.”  Lyon (2008) also observed that the Internet is also ripe with methods for users to defeat drug tests, some “downright dangerous.” 

 Actually obtaining illegal drugs online appears a smaller part of the overall cyber-effect on drug use.  A U.S. government study noted that only .04% of persons aged 12 or older in 2008-2009 who used pain relievers nonmedically in the past 12 months obtained their drugs online.  Nevertheless,  a 2010 United Nations report reflected that India has… “emerged as a major source for illegal drugs trade on the Internet with narcotics smuggled via the country’s courier and postal services to the rest of the world.”  The report further noted that illegal India firms, disguised as software companies, were allowing transactions of banned pharmaceutical preparations to be made over the Internet.

What does all this mean for the community corrections professional charged with supervising offenders with substance abuse issues?  Consider the following suggestions:

  1. Do your own Internet research to see what is being discussed about use, production, and/or sale so you are better informed and know what to look for on your caseload;
  2. Request treatment providers explore with your offenders the role cyberspace plays in their substance abuse history, noting the areas cited by the NDIC (Use, Production, Sale); 
  3. Stress, particularly for juvenile offenders, that the Internet can be a wealth of information, but not all of it is reliable. Believing information posted by some anonymous person on the effects of this drug or that or how to  “safely” produce some mind alerting drug is fool-hearty.  (Have a ready supply of news articles of the tragic results to back this up.);
  4. Periodically request credit card and bank statements to check for online drug purchases, particularly for offenders whose drugs of choice were prescription medications;
  5. Periodically check social networking profiles and do searches to see who offenders are associating with and what is being posted for evidence of drug use and/or efforts to defeat drug testing;
  6. Depending upon the circumstances consider searching or monitoring of computers, including mobile devices, to find online activity related to obtaining, producing, and/or selling drugs and defeating drug use monitoring efforts.

Over 25 years ago when my professional career started a drug user might steal a computer to later sell it to buy drugs. Now, thanks in large part to the Internet, computers are  being used in a different manner to facilitate drug use. Community corrections officers must learn to adapt to the Information Age if they hope to keep up with the 21st Century substance abuser. 


Boyer, E.; Shannon, M and Hibbert, P. “The Internet and Psychoactive Substance Use Among Innovative Drug Users” Pediatrics 2005, 115, 302-305 Retrieved from

Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) “Chemicals Used in “Spice” and “K2″ Type Products Now Under Federal Control and Regulation”,  Press Release Retrieved from 

Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) Hidden Dangers in Your Home,  (2010), Retrieved from  

Leinwand,D. “Teens use Internet to Share Drug Stories”, (2007) USA Today, Retrieved from

Lindsay, L. ”Ways Teens Might Cheat on Drug Tests and How to Catch Them”, (2008) US News, Retrieved from

National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) Information Bulletin: Drugs, Youth, and the Internet(2002), Retrieved from

Reuters, “Illegal Drug Trade via Internet on the Rise in India” (2010) Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings . Retrieved from

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