By Benjamin Goggin
Illustrations by Ibrahim Rayintakath
March 11, 2022
In December, Paul went home for the holidays. Like many people, he hadn’t seen his family for almost a year.
But instead of spending time with his loved ones, he said he stayed in his room and injected methamphetamine. While his family was downstairs, Paul said he pretended to be sick while he relapsed in a multiday meth binge.
Though he was alone in his room, he was using drugs with other people. As he was injecting methamphetamine, he connected with hundreds of other individuals doing the same thing over Zoom.
“There is no meth without Zoom, and there is no Zoom without meth,” Paul, whom NBC News is identifying only by his first name to protect him from professional harm, said in an interview. “That is where I found a forum, like a tribe, where I could be my authentic self with no fear of judgment.”
Paul, who said he’s been addicted to meth for about eight years, is part of a sprawling online community of meth users, hidden in plain sight on nearly every major social media platform and digital communication tool, from Facebook to Zoom to Reddit to Twitter.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol, drug or other substance abuse problem, call the free and confidential helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357), or visit findtreatment.gov.
As nearly all social media platforms and tech companies have trended toward increased platform moderation amid heightened scrutiny from watchdogs, meth users have attracted little attention as they build online communities of tens of thousands of people. With a mixed bag of policies pertaining to drug content that varies by platform, users have found numerous venues where they can post photos and videos of themselves using methamphetamine, sell drugs and encourage other people to use meth.
The growth of these communities has coincided with a meth boom in the U.S. and other parts of the world. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, frequent meth use increased by 66 percent between 2015 and 2019. During that same time period, noncocaine stimulant overdoses nearly tripled, in part due to meth use. While the internet has long been home to groups of drug users and sellers, prosecutors and law enforcement are now increasingly targeting these groups. Despite that fact, meth-focused online behavior is openly thriving.
In interviews with NBC News, 10 current and former meth users described how modern-day social media platforms and communication tools like Zoom have fundamentally changed the experience of people using — and trying to get sober from — methamphetamine.
Meth, unlike opiates and other types of drugs, can keep users awake for days at a time, and often leaves them craving a level of social and sexual connectivity not found with many other drugs. Not only does technology make connecting with other users and sellers easier than ever before, it also provides numerous easy and sometimes hard-to-ignore triggers for craving and relapse.
All but one person asked to withhold their last names or to go by their first initials to publicly discuss their drug use without fear of personal and professional harm.
A review of online communities conducted by NBC News found Zoom rooms with hundreds of people congregating to use meth, Reddit groups where people frequently post photos and videos of themselves using meth and seek meth connections, Facebook groups where people sell meth, and Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram profiles devoted to meth content. On Reddit, similar communities exist among heroin and cocaine users, but searches for Zoom communities devoted to other drugs didn’t return any results.
The meth communities pose challenging questions for tech companies, which must determine how to moderate the groups, if at all. While experts and current and former meth users agreed that technology and the internet were worsening aspects of an already blazing global meth addiction problem, some sources said that online groups gave them a source of connection during their lowest points of isolation.
The endless party on Zoom
At 1 p.m. on a Wednesday in February, a DJ in front of pink flashing lights played a trance song that included audio snippets from Netflix’s Squid Game for a crowd of 90 people. The performance wasn’t at a warehouse rave. It was in a Zoom room organized around meth use.
While hardcore pornography streamed, members of the audience with lightly coded usernames referencing “Meff,” “clouds” and “slamming” showed themselves injecting (slamming) and smoking (clouds) meth, having sex, masturbating, passed out and eating lunch. For meth users on Zoom, it was just another day.
While Zoom became a household name during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform was familiar to many meth users for years before it went mainstream.
According to Paul and other current and former meth users, Zoom has been used since at least 2018 to host large-scale, online meth parties, oftentimes for LGBTQ men — a community ravaged by methamphetamine use — but also among mixed-gender groups.
Paul said he first started to see Zoom used among meth users at in-person parties where people would get together to use drugs and have sex, called “party and play,” in the queer community. Initially, the technology was used to connect in-person parties from around the world, with links easily searchable in search engines and shared on the now defunct social platform Google+.
Over time, and boosted by the pandemic, according to Paul and other people who have participated in the Zoom meth scene, the online meth community became more organized, distributed and oriented around individual users.
Today, it’s easy to find Zoom links to rooms on social media sites like Reddit, Twitter, the group chat platform Discord, MeWe — an alternative social media platform with little moderation — and via search engines like Google and Bing. Inside the rooms, many of which go around the clock for weeks at a time and use paid accounts, it’s common for at least 50 to 150 people to be on video using meth at the same time.
For Paul, the Zoom rooms are a way “of staying connected without having to face the reality of the fact that it's Sunday at 4 a.m.”
He also said the rooms were a space where no one judges anyone else for how or when they use meth.
“There's always someone that will slam with you,” Paul said. “In a room, people come and go, faces come and go, but there is always someone that's going to condone that, give you the thumbs up — their approval — that what you're about to do is cool.”
In a statement provided to NBC News, a Zoom spokesperson said, “This type of activity is not welcome on Zoom and we take action whenever we become aware of it.” The spokesperson said that the company would “only take action if we receive reports about possible violations of our Terms of Service or Community Standards.” The spokesperson added that the company did “not have the means to insert our employees or others into meetings without them being visible as participants.” Many of the rooms viewed by NBC News remain open and active.
Google spokesperson Ned Adriance highlighted the company’s efforts to include addiction helpline numbers at the top of search results related to addiction. But only a small number of NBC News’ searches triggered this feature.
A MeWe spokesperson emphasized that “Illegal activity of any kind is strictly prohibited on MeWe.”
A Discord spokesperson said, “Discord’s policies prohibit users from promoting, encouraging or engaging in any illegal behavior. When we become aware of this kind of activity, we take immediate action, including banning users and shutting down servers.”
Bing did not respond to a request for comment.
Isolation and extreme meth use
Robert started using meth in 2004 by accident.
After meeting a man on Craigslist, he snorted a line of powder that he thought was cocaine. It turned out to be methamphetamine.
With little knowledge available about meth at the time and few resources available, Robert, who asked that NBC News conceal his last name to protect his privacy, became an “on and off” user, which he defines as five to six times per year.
Eventually, Robert found that his meth use was affecting his everyday life. He was arrested for possession after trying to wait out his high before driving home. He also said he’s fallen because of dehydration during binges numerous times, once necessitating a trip to the emergency room and stitches to his head.
More frequently, Robert ended up turning to Zoom when he was high.
“It’s safer and more convenient,” he said. “At least you're not out in public.”
Like Paul, Robert began to find a sense of community in the Zoom groups, and almost exclusively turned to them when he was high.
But Zoom meth use comes with its own unique dangers, Robert and other people say.
Zoom users often encourage people to use more drugs than they might in in-person groups, Robert said, egging people on to smoke and inject more in the chat.
“I think there's a lot of potential for heightened risk,” said David Fawcett, vice president of clinical programming at Seeking Integrity, an addiction treatment center that focuses on intersectional drug and sex addictions. “I think people can be certainly less compassionate and empathetic and be more cruel, and actually encourage people to maybe take a bigger dose than they might have.”
Numerous Zoom meth room participants also mentioned the isolating effects of the groups.
“Because of its availability, I think it encouraged me to stay in more often, and to isolate and not look for partners, and it became very addicting just going on Zoom,” Robert said. “It feels like such a waste of time. You're up all night, the sun comes up, the sun goes down, you miss entire days. In the end, you're just all alone.”
Ignacio Labayen de Inza, the founder of the harm reduction group Controlling Chemsex, said that heightened levels of isolation could be dangerous for meth users.
“Suicidal thoughts are very common,” he said. “The only interaction that you have with people is messy. It's chaotic. It's about fantasizing. And it's very unsatisfactory because you never get what you want.”
Meth on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook
Meth use can be found on almost every major social media and digital communication platform, often with a simple keyword search.
And despite the rules of many tech services against the sale of drugs on their platforms, they are not in agreement on how to treat content depicting meth use.
In its terms of service, Zoom says it bans “obscene” and “illegal” content, despite the continued presence of long-term meth rooms on its platform. There was a period of time in 2018, however, when Zoom was attempting to shut down the rooms, going after the administrators of well-known, large-scale rooms, according to multiple people who participated in the Zoom meth rooms before 2018. But with time and the Zoom boom of the pandemic, the rooms have restarted and largely appear to go unchecked.
Reddit is home to a variety of meth-based communities, including r/meth, which has more than 76,000 members. It’s one of dozens of groups on the platform that openly host content that glorifies meth use, including links to Zoom chats and other platforms. In r/meth, users post photos and videos of themselves using meth, seek advice on topics like cleaning up spilled drugs, and post personal ads looking for other users.
Cody, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is a meth user who frequently posts on meth Reddit. He creates videos of himself smoking meth set to music, and distorted by filters and visual effects. He said posting on Reddit has allowed him to connect with other meth users online and in real life.
“I got a few Reddit followers here and there,” he said. “I've met three girls in real life that I know from Reddit. All were addicts in active addiction.”
In another meth-associated subreddit, which has more than 3,000 members, people sell explicit photos, videos, and video chat sessions that feature drug use. On another subreddit with more than 44,000 members, users openly advertise their ability to sell or provide meth, using coded words oftentimes associated with the drug.
Reddit’s content rules are more permissive than those of other major tech companies. As far as drugs go, Reddit explicitly bans only the buying and selling of drugs on the platform, according to a spokesperson.
“We have dedicated teams that enforce our policies across the platform,” the spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that some communities, like r/meth, were allowed to continue to exist on the platform with harm reduction in mind — providing a space for drug users to connect and be together virtually rather than alone.
In public and private groups on Facebook, members look for and advertise meth for sale.
In one group called Meth Lifestyle, which was created in December and had more than 2,400 members before it was deleted, a group administrator called Snow Plug posted pictures of methamphetamine, writing “HMU if u need,” using a common abbreviation for “hit me up.” Another administrator posted a link to a Telegram group with photos and videos of methamphetamine, encouraging users to purchase the drugs through Cash App, Venmo, Zelle or Apple Pay and promising speedy delivery.
In other existing Facebook groups that have thousands of members with names like “Now that’s methed Up!” and “Da meth homies,” users post photos of meth, post videos of themselves smoking meth and look for and advertise meth for sale.
In response to questions from NBC News, a spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, said: “We removed several groups and pages for violating our policies by sharing content that coordinates or promotes the use of illicit drugs. We're working hard to keep this content off Facebook and Instagram by using technology, reports from our community and reviews by our teams to enforce these policies.”
Despite Meta’s actions, groups and pages advertising meth sale and use were still easily found on Facebook via search.
On Twitter, users with thousands and tens of thousands of followers shared Zoom links to meth-focused rooms, post meth videos using hashtags like #CrystalMeth, and publish pornography that shows people injecting what appears to be methamphetamine. The videos can bring in hundreds of thousands of views. On meth-focused accounts, Twitter’s algorithmic recommendation feature frequently surfaces other accounts devoted to the drug.
Twitter bans the sale or purchase of drugs on its platform. In response to NBC News’ inquiry, Twitter suspended four accounts, saying: “We take the safety of our users seriously and in an effort to address the potential for real-world harm, prohibit the use of Twitter for any unlawful behavior or to further illegal activity.” But accounts promoting the sale of meth and drug use are still easy to locate on the platform.
Despite explicitly banning “content that depicts abuse of or giving instructions on how to create hard drugs such as cocaine or opioids,” YouTube continues to host homemade videos of people smoking and glorifying meth. A search of the popular meth slang “clouds” along with “meth” brought up dozens of videos of people abusing methamphetamine, some with more than 100,000 views.
YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said: “Our community guidelines don't allow videos that show hard drug use. As a result we removed a number of the videos raised to us by NBC News and we’re continuing to review additional content.” But it took only a single search to find more homemade videos showing people smoking meth.
Adam Jones in Plano, Texas, on March 7. (Raul Rodriguez for NBC News)
Adam Jones in Plano, Texas, on March 7. (Raul Rodriguez for NBC News)
Digital triggers can hamper recovery
Despite the abundance of meth material online, Robert said he’s been off meth for more than three months and intends to stay off. But he acknowledges that the difficulties of addiction in the digital age have sometimes led him back to drugs.
“I'm constantly going through this, trying to quit,” he said.
The mere availability of his triggers has led him to struggles with relapse, Robert said.
“If I'm stressing out on something, or if I'm really worried or have a lot of anxiety or depression or whatever, then I will go to those sites and sometimes they can be very triggering and they just suck me in,” he said of Zoom rooms and hookup apps like Grindr. Grindr and similar hookup apps are frequently used by meth users to connect with one another locally, and sometimes to obtain drugs, according to the people interviewed for this story and NBC’s previous reporting. A Grindr spokesperson said that “illegal drug-related activity will get a user banned, no question.”
The urge to get on Zoom and use meth has been so strong for Robert that he said he’s thrown out multiple webcams.
“I couldn't control myself,” he said. I didn't want to do it anymore, So I finally threw out the camera.”
Webcamming on Zoom is so tied to meth use for him, though, that he’s rushed out to buy cameras before he begins a relapse. “When I knew I wanted to use I would race to go to the store and buy a camera first before I even used,” he said.
Robert isn’t alone in his struggle to maintain sobriety in a digital landscape.
Adam Jones, who was first introduced to crystal meth in 2019 and has cycled through phases of active addiction and recovery since, said social media has been a strong trigger for him.
“It makes you attach to not only smells, people, places and things but social media as well,” he said. “It can be a trigger.”
Jones, who said that during his active addiction it was common to see Zoom rooms open and streaming at in-person meth parties, said that now “little things can just pop up in everyday living and you just want to use.”
Jones said that social media has directly led him to relapse. Early in his recovery, he said that he remade his Facebook page and added only friends who were also in recovery. But that didn’t stop incoming messages on the platform from a former partner who he used meth with. “The floodgates opened,” he said.
J, a 33-year-old in recovery who used to run a popular meth-focused Tumblr page and asked to only be referred to by his first initial to maintain his privacy, told a similar story.
Despite abandoning his Tumblr account, part of a longstanding meth-devoted community on the platform that creates drug use content and advertises drugs for sale, J. still had to confront digital temptation.
After he became sober, he said Instagram accounts trying to sell drugs would message him without warning. J said he usually reports the pages, but isn’t always successful in getting them removed from the platform. Instagram has had a well-publicized battle with drug dealers who use the platform to advertise and sell their products. In December, the Tech Transparency Project released a report that documented how teens were recommended to follow drug-selling accounts on the platform.
The role technology plays in many people’s meth addiction is so pivotal, that many addiction experts recommend that people in recovery severely restrict their use of phones and the internet.
“Technology just creates so many on-ramps, to get back into trouble,” said Fawcett, the vice president of Seeking Integrity.
“A lot of guys who take this very seriously actually get flip phones so that they're not able to surf the internet on their phones,” he said.
A spokesperson for Tumblr said “the sale, exchange, or promotion of illegal or regulated drugs and substances is not allowed on Tumblr.” Meth content is still easily searchable on the platform.
Not everyone agrees on what tech companies should do
While moderating the meth-using communities may seem like a predictable next step for tech companies, not everyone agrees on how to approach the situation.
Numerous addiction specialists and caretakers emphasized the role of teaching personal responsibility to patients.
Fawcett said he tells his patients, “This world is out there, what are you going to do as a person to protect yourself and make better choices?”
He also believes that tech companies should grapple with how to moderate meth content more actively.
“I think there's just really no accountability,” he said. “I would just personally like to see more supervision for some of these rooms in these spaces.”
Some companies like Meta have made clear attempts to intervene in such communities, but they continue to pop up.
Paul believes that any effort to moderate the communities will be futile, and that now platforms have an incentive — keeping users on their websites — to keep meth content online.
“There are loads of fringe platforms waiting to jump in,” he said, referring to user backlash against Reddit and Tumblr after they imposed stricter moderation. “You can’t stop the signal.”