Cracking the emoji drug code: How teens are using emojis to buy and deal drugs

Mother speaks out after losing son to drug overdose

A mother is bringing attention to how emojis can be used as a secret code to purchase and sell drugs after she lost her son to a drug overdose.

A mother is bringing attention to how emojis can be used as a secret code to purchase and sell drugs after she lost her son to a drug overdose.

Most parents are unaware that emojis are being used as code, but the problem is very real. Rebecca Sheller wants to help other parents because of what happened to her 24-year-old son Max.

“Max had a really sweet soul,” Sheller said. “He loved his brother. His favorite thing in the world was surfing.”

Sheller said she and her husband were very involved parents. They talked about the danger of drugs with their children, but it wasn’t enough.

“You have to understand what’s going on, on Snapchat, Instagram, and on Facebook Messenger,” Sheller said.

Sheller learned social media is now the place where illegal drugs are bought and sold. She found out after her son died of a drug overdose.

“And it said across the bottom HMU -- hit me up later. I didn’t know what HMU meant until I really started looking at this,” Sheller said.

Sheller doesn’t want any other parents to go through what she has -- losing her son to a drug -- bought through coded messages on social media.

“We weren’t the parents that weren’t involved. We were the parents that were there all the time,” Sheller said. “And for any parent to have to through what we’re going through and not understand that it can happen to their child. I would just beg them to please, pay attention.”

How emojis are being used

Law enforcement has some insight into how emojis are being used.

“It is almost a language unto itself,” N1 Discovery Forensic expert Scott Bailey said. “You can use emojis and characters to describe what drugs you’re selling.”

Brian McNeal works for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Detroit Division.

“Every single platform. You name it. It’s being sold,” McNeal said. “That’s the scary thing. There was a time when drugs knew demographics and boundaries, you know. You found methamphetamine out in the sticks and you found crack cocaine out in the city. No longer. It’s everywhere and that’s what being on social media almost uber-ized has done.”

Drug dealers are hidden behind social media accounts and they’re communicating with young people without using words. They’re speaking in code, using emojis and it’s happening throughout Metro Detroit.

“We’ve got the common ones like trees for cannabis, marijuana. Ice, diamonds for methamphetamine,” McNeal said.

A rocket ship is used by drug dealers to advertise drug potency. The maple leaf is the universal symbol for all drugs. Sellers offer to deliver the drugs using a gas pump, car or cellphone emoji. A shipping box or parachute indicates they can ship the drugs. A cookie emoji means they have a large batch.

Emojis used to symbolize drugs. (DEA)

Read: DEA warns of ‘rainbow fentanyl’ targeting youth in Southeast Michigan

Emojis also used for sexually explicit conversations

The real danger is parents think nothing of the emojis and their kids have no idea the pill they’re buying could kill them.

“The Adderall one is a very common one because Adderall is so prevalent in schools. And that’s the pill with the A and the train (A-🚆), and that would be the Adderall train,” online forensics expert Scott Bailey said.

Bailey said teens are having entire conversations with just emojis. Not just about drugs, but other things too.

“There is a whole set of emojis that are sexually explicit,” Bailey said. " One of the most common ones right now we’re starting to see is the ramen noodle emoji (🍜). And you’re saying, ‘Ramen noodle? How is that used sexually?’ Ramen noodle is a way to ask for nudes. Noodle, nude. So, if you’re seeing that maybe with some other key icons related to sexually explicit, that should raise concerns for a parent.”

“The emoji of the face with the teardrop and the squirt gun is: I hate myself and I want to kill myself,” Bailey said.

“If you are starting to see these emojis being used and you combine it with perhaps, behavior changes, a drop in performance at school or in sports. That might be a red flag for you to do some more investigating and have those conversations with a loved one or child,” McNeal said.

With new emojis coming out every year now, it’s a lot to keep up with. But both of the experts Local 4 spoke with also stressed the importance of getting familiar with emoji language.

Read: Can you overdose just by touching fentanyl? Many health experts say no

How to get Narcan in Michigan for free

Narcan (Generic name Naloxone) can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Its cost is usually covered by Medicaid and many other insurances. There are non-profit organizations that also give it away for free.

  • Click here to view a map of pharmacies approved to dispense Naloxone.
  • Click here to get Naloxone mailed to you for free.
  • Click here to learn more about how fentanyl test strips are being used as an off-label harm reduction tool.

Read more: Michigan health officials to provide free naloxone to organizations, individuals


Have something you’d like us to look into? Reach the Local 4 investigative team at 313-962-9348, or email Karen Drew at kdrew@wdiv.com.



About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.