This Message Will Self-Destruct: Snapchat and the Tragic Death of 16-year-old Samuel Chapman

by Christopher Dale

On Sunday, February 7, 16-year-old Samuel Chapman asked his father for a cheeseburger, then went to his room to play video games. An hour later his mother – Dr. Laura Berman, relationship therapist and host of In the Bedroom on the Oprah Winfrey Network – went into Samuel’s room to discuss a planned summer internship.

She found her son lying on the floor. He was dead.

Dr. Berman broke the tragic news the next day, via Instagram. “A drug dealer connected with him on Snapchat and gave him fentinyl (sic) laced Xanax and he overdosed…” she wrote. “They do this because it hooks people even more and is good for business, but it causes overdose and the kids don’t know what they are taking.”

Samuel had apparently procured the illicit drug using Snapchat, a social media and messaging platform whose signature feature is its digital “burn after reading” functionality. Typically, messages sent via Snapchat are only available for a short time before they become inaccessible to a recipient – and, more importantly in this case, law enforcement officials or a minor’s unsuspecting parents. Snapchat has an estimated 200 million daily users.

By all indications, Samuel was not an addict but merely a bored, curious teenager experimenting. He’d been caught smoking marijuana a few times – his parents had even been administering drug tests, which he’d been passing. So it’s safe to say that Samuel buying hard drugs online wasn’t a regular thing.

This stunningly sad story made headlines across the country, and prompts discussions surrounding several of its details.

Fentanyl: Cheap, Deadly and Pervasive

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever some 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and heroin. Like other opioids, fentanyl is a drug with a dedicated pharmacological use that quickly transitioned and proliferated into illicit street drugs.

But while common prescription opioids like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin birthed the current overdose epidemic, fentanyl has played an outsized role in sustaining it. In the 12 months ending in May 2020, more than 81,000 Americans died of drug overdoses – a one-year record. Per the Centers for Disease Control, synthetic opioids – primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl – appear to be the primary driver of increasing overdose deaths, with fatalities involving such substances jumping 38.4 percent from the previous 12-month period.

Overdose deaths involving cocaine also increased by 26.5 percent, an uptick the CDC also links to co-use or contamination of cocaine with fentanyl or heroin. Anyone with a former cocaine addiction knows that dying from a cocaine overdose is certainly possible but atypical; so dramatic a spike in cocaine overdose deaths can only be attributed to newer, more lethal ingredients in the illicit drug supply stream.

Why fentanyl? Because it’s cheap, potent and versatile. Synthetic and cost-effective, most fentanyl is manufactured in large batches in China and shipped around the world via the black market. Though Dr. Berman’s implication that drug dealers incorporate fentanyl to “hook people even more” certainly has merit, the more prominent factor here is money. Simply put, cutting an expensive product like cocaine with comparably inexpensive fentanyl allows a drug dealer to get more baggies per brick without sacrificing potency.

In fact, fentanyl is so cheap that it’s increasingly added to other synthetic opioids, typically ones far less powerful like OxyContin. The result is an intended opioid user consuming far more than he intended, often with lethal consequences.

For active and recovering addicts alike, the takeaway is clear: we don’t know what’s really in the drugs we’re buying, and the stakes are now far higher than discovering a dime bag of weed is actually oregano. Most of us have gotten ripped off and snorted baking soda before; the difference is that we lost 50 bucks rather than our lives.

Fentanyl’s widespread arrival on the drug scene makes the chances of catching a hot dose exponentially higher. This is because fentanyl is uniquely lethal, a toxin in which a few milligrams – apportioned by a greedy drug dealer more concerned with his wallet than his customers’ lives – can mean the difference between merriment and the morgue.

So many problems are stemming from this singular drug that, in August, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a special warning about fentanyl-laced products, including the one that Samuel Chapman purchased: Xanax.

A frequent phrase in recovery groups is that we know what’s waiting for us if we go back to using. In the past few years, fentanyl has upped the ante on the all-in gamble that our next drug might very well be our last.

Parental Advisory: Explicit Messaging Platform

Fentanyl’s rapacious rise comes in parallel with another worrisome trend: technology’s ability to circumvent parental control. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson Dr. Berman learned too late.

“He got the drugs delivered to the house,” she wrote on Instagram. “Please watch your kids and WATCH SNAPCHAT especially. That’s how they get them.”

Snapchat’s response was the typical “thoughts and prayers” statement reminiscent of the NRA’s response to yet another school shooting … followed by a questionable-at-best expression of corporate responsibility.

“We are committed to working together with law enforcement in this case and in all instances where Snapchat is used for illegal purposes,” Snapchat spokeswoman Rachel Racusen wrote in an email to CNN. “We have zero tolerance for using Snapchat to buy or sell illegal drugs.”

Gee, thanks.

What Ms. Racusen failed to mention is that, per its own guidelines, Snapchat places the onus on individuals to report malfeasance. So in a situation where both sender and recipient are engaging in an illegal activity – in this case, selling and buying drugs – Snapchat’s proactivity is nonexistent.

But don’t worry parents, because to prevent children from accessing its message-erasing, privacy-centric platform, Snapchat has age restrictions…

…until your son or daughter turns 13. Then let the encrypted, disappearing drug deals begin!

Samuel Chapman’s death reveals the unacceptable ease with which today’s ultra-connected minors can access today’s ultra-lethal street drugs. Hell, lockdown amid an unprecedented pandemic didn’t even matter: Samuel ordered the drugs on his phone and had them delivered to his door, showcasing how street drugs no longer need the street.

And while it’s somewhat unfair to judge a grieving parent’s immediate reaction to her son’s sudden death, Dr. Berman’s all-capped warning to “WATCH SNAPCHAT” seems indicative of the unfortunate place in which society finds itself. Today’s parents are pulled between dictatorially monitoring a teenager’s every move – thereby instilling in him a sense that they don’t believe in his ability to make sound judgments – and, at the other extreme, trusting him far too much.

“I thought the worst thing that can happen on Snapchat were nude pictures, or saying something inappropriate or something like that,” Dr. Berman said during an interview with Chicago’s WGN Morning News. “I had no idea there were drug dealers on there.”

The hard truth is that parents shouldn’t be “watching” their kids use Snapchat. They should be disallowing it, period. A messaging platform whose messages disappear isn’t a tool for minors; it’s an app for folks who don’t want, as Dr. Berman mentioned, a nude selfie to be part of their permanent cyber-record.

It remains unclear how Chapman paid for the tainted Xanax. In fact, the only way it became known that Chapman had arranged the deal via Snapchat is that he’d sent a friend a screenshot of the supplier’s drug menu. Otherwise, there may never have been any record whatsoever of the incident. Still, assumedly so high-tech a transaction could have been conducted in myriad ways, ranging from an analog cash handoff near the family’s home to digital payment methods like Venmo, PayPal or even cryptocurrency. The larger point becomes the near impossibility of tracking a teen’s every move, online or otherwise.

As for the increasingly pressing issue of fentanyl-laced drugs, short-term solutions seem unlikely. Its supply-side cost compared to Xanax, heroin and especially cocaine will continue to make it a lucrative additive for dealers and a lethal game of Russian Roulette for users.

Longer-term, one seemingly contradictory option may become more appealing: legalizing all narcotics. While this certainly wouldn’t keep drugs out of a 16-year-old’s hands, legalization would lead to regulatory oversight to better ensure that, for example, a Xanax is just a Xanax and not a poisonous, fentanyl-rich deathtrap.

While we’re a long way from any of this being more than hypothetical, authorities would be well-advised to see if fentanyl-laced drug deaths in Oregon – which recently decriminalized (though not legalized) all common street drugs – continue to track with national statistics or, hopefully, diminish. Sometimes a stigma lifted can also lift veils, making processes more transparent and, in this case, drugs less deadly. To be determined.

Of course, it will likely never be known whether Samuel’s death could have been avoided. He was a good student from an affluent background, and nothing has come to light suggesting his family life was anything other than loving and healthy.

He had a bright future, and the way that future was extinguished – with a dangerous, synthetic drug purchased via a dangerous, synthetic messaging platform – haunts as much as it instructs. If this fate could befall Samuel Chapman it could befall any of us, addict and non-addict alike.