Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Facebook and Instagram work to shut down 'pop-up' drug sites in UAE

Social media accounts are being used to sell cannabis and boast of 'smart and secure' deliveries to buyers

Social media companies are working with the authorities to shut down illegal drug sites in the UAE
Social media companies are working with the authorities to shut down illegal drug sites in the UAE

Facebook and Instagram are working to shut down social media accounts purporting to sell cannabis and other drugs to UAE buyers.

The social media giants are targeting 'pop-up' accounts that offer users 'smart and secure' deliveries.

One account touted "w33d, thc oil, h@sh, shrooms" in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Symbols are used to avoid automatic searches used by social media firms and police.

“As soon as we are made aware of this type of content – either through the technology we have developed or in-app reports from the community – we remove it,” said a spokesman from Facebook, speaking on behalf of both social media companies.

We consider the individuals of the community as partners who help open our eyes on such websites. This also applies to sites that trade illegal drugs

Telecommunications Regulatory Authority

“We encourage anyone who comes across content that might violate our guidelines to report it and our teams work 24/7 to review all reports."

Anyone found guilty of managing, preparing or establishing a place for the abuse of narcotic drugs faces jail time of between 10 and 15 years and a minimum fine of Dh20,000.

In August, Abu Dhabi's Department of Economic Development (DED) shut-down 115 websites and social media accounts found in breach of commercial law.

Of the 267 websites blocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in May, 26 were closed for violating intellectual property rights, providing illegal online proxy services and other illegal activities.

A spokesman for the TRA said the public plays an important role in reporting social media accounts advertising illicit substances.

“The TRA is counting on the cooperation of individuals in reporting illegal sites, games or accounts,” he said.

“We consider the individuals of the community as partners who help open our eyes on such websites.

“This also applies to sites that trade illegal drugs.

“However, taking actions against such sites is subject to instructions from relevant legal and specialist authorities in the country.”

Experts are concerned seeing drugs sold on social media could normalise their sale and consumption.

Sami Hassan, of the Erada Centre for Treatment and Rehab, said that too many youths are getting involved in drugs. Reem Mohammed / The National
Sami Hassan, of the Erada Centre, counsels a young addict sent for rehab. Reem Mohammed / The National

“Drugs and social media are a dangerous combination,” said Dr Mayed Agour, a consultant psychologist at the government-linked Erada Centre for Treatment and Rehab in Dubai.

“It is challenging for authorities to police what is being traded online, as dealers will always find new ways to navigate around restrictions.

“Young people generally are impulsive and at higher risk of drug abuse and addiction issues, so are exposed to dangerous social media messages.

“They are adventurous and like testing new things to push boundaries."

Dr Agour said educational messages on the dangers of drugs should be presented on social media to inform young people of drugs they may wrongly believe are harmless.

“The scientific evidence around cannabis is clear,” he said.

“It is a drug of abuse that can be addictive and trigger serious mental illness like psychosis. Cannabis is dangerous in many ways.”

“Allowing them access to sites which encourage substance use, unhealthy behaviours and violence has the potential for serious consequences, particularly in terms of their mental health and to normalise such behaviour.”“One of the key dangers of social media and its various platforms is the lack of boundaries and the negative influence it can have on young people,” said Tanya Dharamshi, counselling psychologist for Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

Most webpages are advertising marijuana.

Under the anti-narcotic psychotropic substances law, marijuana should not be bought, imported, exported, made, extracted, separated, produced, possessed or taken in the UAE.

A prison sentence between six months to two years and a Dh10,000 fine can be imposed for possession of drugs for personal use.

“Limiting screen time, ensuring privacy settings are in place and for parents to know what sites their children are visiting and who they are communicating with online is all key," Ms Dharamshi said.

Updated: September 11, 2019 11:36 AM

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