Facebook and Instagram have launched a crackdown on the trade of illegal drugs online, with one US journalist calling the practice an "absurd" by-product of the social media age.
A series of investigations has revealed drug dealers operating in plain sight, by advertising their products using images and hashtags on social media websites.
"It all takes place on the internet, it's right in front of everyone", says Eric Sundermann, a journalist at Noisey.com who was part of a team that uncovered prescription cough syrup cartels plying their wares on the photo-sharing website Instagram.
One investigation prompted Instagram, which is now owned by Facebook, to act - banning several searchable hashtags and keywords in an effort to restrict the free flow of communication between dealers and those looking for drugs in the internet's social spaces.
"It's almost outside the drug itself it speaks to kind of absurdity of our culture at large right now," Mr Sundermann told the ABC.
Drug dealers using hashtags to find potential customers
A highly-publicised investigation by the BBC's new social media unit, #BBCtrending, revealed drug dealers have been posting photos of various drugs including marijuana and MDMA and offering up deals to potential customers.
The dealers, based mostly in the US, tagged photos with hashtags as inconspicuous as #marijuana and #mdma.
Instagram issued a statement to the BBC, stressing "people can't buy things on Instagram, we are simply a place where people share photos and videos".
But the report revealed the two parties finalised the drug deal, on where to meet up and collect the illicit substances, on other smartphone messaging apps like Whats App or Kik.
"We encourage people who come across illegal or inappropriate content to report it to us using the built-in reporting tools next to every photo, video or comment, so we can take action," the statement from Instagram said.
A search of the drug-related terms now delivers no results to users.
Journalist finds prescription cough syrup market on Instagram
Up until a few months ago a search on Instagram for the drug nicknamed Lean, returned thousands of pictures.
"Hashtags like #TeamLean, #DirtySprite and #LeanOnMe threw up heaps of results on Instagram," Mr Sundermann said.
He explains that Lean is concentrated prescription cough syrup mixed with a soft drink and is the drug of choice for the US rap community.
"It's got codeine in it and mimics the effect of heroin," he said.
"Rappers have it topped off with a jolly rancher lolly, giving it a purple or pink colour and they sing songs about Lean and Sizzurp."
The investigation launched by one of Noisey's journalists uncovered several drug dealers using the hashtags and went right back to the suppliers of the prescription cough syrup.
"We found people taking photos of pallets of it in factories ... and then marketing it to people at cheap prices," Mr Sundermann said.
He does not believe banning the search terms will make much difference, citing the shutdown and now reopening of underground online store Silk Road.
Mr Sundermann says authorities have to get used to everyday illegal activities becoming common place on social media websites.
"This is an example of meme culture or just of internet culture in general," he said.
"It continues to leak into the mainstream and leak into daily life and daily activities."
9 Nov 2013, 7:00am AEDT
Mark Di Stefano
Image: A drug dealer poses in an Instagram photo with bottles of concentrated prescription cough syrup, which mimics the effects of heroin. Noisey.com/Instagram
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