Exploring the use of social media and messaging apps to buy and sell drugs in New Zealand : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health, Massey University, Albany, New Zealand

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Introduction: The use of social media and messaging apps to facilitate drug trading has been increasing in recent years. This thesis presents the first exploration of social media drug markets in New Zealand. Methods: Initial statistical analysis of New Zealand Drug Trends Survey data (N=23,500) was complemented by thematic analysis of anonymous semi-structured messaging app-based interviews (N=33) with people who purchased and/or sold drugs via social media. Additional observational data was collected on Discord drug servers (N=7). Qualitative data were analysed using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework drawing on concepts from drug market and drug use studies as well as communications and social media scholarship. Findings: Survey modelling indicated that younger age groups (16<20 years) were most likely to purchase drugs via social media. Social media drug purchasing was also associated with a greater likelihood of transacting with a commercial seller type. These patterns indicate potential for young people to engage with higher-risk commercial local drug markets. This was evidenced in interview and observational data on “lower tier” Discord drug servers, where members often contended with ‘fake’ drugs and robbery. However, interview data showed not all social media and messaging apps facilitated the same types of digital drug market dynamics. Encrypted messaging apps were often linked to trusted commercial sellers, while ‘low security’ options like Messenger and Snapchat were often used in contexts of social supply due to their association with pre-existing friendships. The latter dynamic could enable young people to extend many of the risk reducing benefits of social supply. Many interviewees reported low concern for being caught by police as part of social media drug trades, but continued to engage in digital risk management behaviours aimed at reducing their potential for exposure to others, including the police, on social media. Conclusions: The incorporation of diverse social media and apps in harm reduction strategies to reach different groups is recommended. However, the convenience of social media drug access and potential for increased drug market harm add to the case for substantial drug policy changes in New Zealand, including changes to prioritise decriminalisation and non-punitive responses to drug use and low-level drug supply behaviours.

Drugs of abuse, Selling, Online social networks, Law and legislation