Cracking the Code: I-TEAM helps parents decipher emojis used by teens to hide drug use

Drug dealers have been talking in code for years out of fear law enforcement might be listening to their conversations. But now, your teenager’s cellphone is making it easier than ever to communicate using emojis as code words for drugs.

These images are seemingly harmless to the untrained eye of a parent. Now, we want to help you crack the code so you can spot warning signs your teen is texting about drugs.

The DEA has a list of emojis and their hidden meanings: A parking sign can actually refer to a Percocet pill. A chocolate bar can really mean Xanax.

The DEA warns of emojis used as code words for drugs.

There are several different emojis that can refer to Oxycontin: a football, a car, a shopping cart or a chick are the most commonly used.


A subway car is used to reference Adderall and a cookie emoji can also mean a large batch of a drug that is available for sale.

The DEA warns of emojis used as code words for drugs.

Drug dealers also have hidden lingo that explains how these drugs can be delivered. If they plan to deliver them in person, a gas pump, car or cellphone emoji is used.

The DEA warns of emojis used as code words for drugs.

If the drug will be shipped, a shipping box or parachute is used.

The DEA warns of emojis used as code words for drugs.

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

Mike Dubet m an assistant special agent in charge with the Jacksonville office of the DEA, said most of the pills being sold on social media are fake, laced with dangerous amounts of fentanyl.

“About 40% of the seized pills -- four of the 10 -- contain a potentially lethal dose, over 2 milligrams of fentanyl,” he said.

Dubet said social media has also created an environment in which people buying drugs feel more comfortable making the purchase.

“If I can sit on my smartphone in my living room and communicate with someone, and then have them meet me at the football game or the concert, it just, it just takes some of the risk away from it,” he said, compared to before cellphones and social media when someone would meet a stranger on a corner in a “bad part of town” in the middle of the night to buy drugs.

Dubet also pointed out that teens often think a pill they buy on the street is less dangerous than cocaine or heroin. He said kids have grown up taking pills, prescription antibiotics to treat an infection, or ibuprofen and acetaminophen to treat pain. This has created a false sense of security about pills and the risk of taking something bought on the street or given to them from a friend.

Susan Pitman, the founder of Drug Free Duval, joins us to discuss the rise in overdoses among teens and how to talk to your kids about the dangers of drug abuse.

Teenagers are often prescribed Adderall or Xanax for legitimate reasons, but if these are passed around and not prescribed to the user, they have frequently been mixed with fentanyl.

Drug dealers, Dubet said, are not intending to kill their customers by lacing these drugs with fentanyl, but instead are hoping the addictive qualities of the narcotic will create an endless stream of repeat customers.

You should know, an analysis completed by the American Medical Association concluded that there had been a 94% increase in overdose deaths among teens between 14 and 18 years old from 2019 to 2020 followed by an additional 20% increase from 2020 to 2021. These deaths are contributed to drugs laced with fentanyl.

The DEA warns of emojis used as code words for drugs.

For this reason, parents need to make sure they are having regular conversations about drugs with their children, explaining to their teen that they should never snort or inject any drug, nor should they take a pill that is not prescribed to them.

Additionally, Dubet, who is a parent himself, urges parents to help their teen come up with a response should they be offered a drug.

“I think that an important part of the conversation is to talk to your children about having an escape. How to escape the conversation when someone proposes drugs to you,” he said.

Max Sheller was 24 years old when he collapsed of an accidental drug overdose. His mother, Rebecca, said an autopsy revealed he had fentanyl in his system.

She acknowledges that Max struggled with addiction but said he would never have taken something that knowingly would have killed him. He had been in rehab and was on the road to recovery.

Max Sheller was 24 years old when he collapsed of an accidental drug overdose.

After his death, she said she found a video in Max’s Snapchat feed of someone selling Xanax. She said it was probably laced with fentanyl. She has now dedicated her life to urging parents to be more involved in what their teenagers are exposed to in social media apps.

“You have to understand what’s going on, on Snapchat, on Instagram and on Facebook Messenger because this is how people are getting to our children right now because in between an ad for a great outfit is an ad for a pill that is laced with fentanyl,” said Sheller.

She describes the dramatic increase in teen overdose deaths as a war on our children. She is pleading with all parents to look through their child’s cellphone.

“You pay the bill; it belongs to you,” she said.

Be intrusive, be nosy, educate yourself about what your teen is seeing, who they are communicating with and the code words they may be using to talk with friends about drugs.

This morning we are continuing the conversation about your children and drugs as part of Jen Waugh's I-TEAM investigation: Cracking the Code. Last night, we showed you the code words teens and drug dealers use to hide text message conversations about drugs from their parents. TJ Ward is the North Florida director of advocacy for Project Opioid and Kathleen Roberts is the executive director of the Community Coalition Alliance, both are here to explain how drugs are being sold through social media.

Most importantly, do not assume your teen is immune to being exposed to drugs.

“We weren’t the parents that weren’t involved. We were the parents that were there all the time,” Sheller said.

She never wants any other parent to suffer the kind of loss her family is trying to grasp.

“I’ve never felt a pain like that in my life and I really didn’t think I would ever be normal, and I believe for a year I was in shock. The pain doesn’t stop, and the pain will never stop, never stops for my husband, never stops for his brother,” she said. “For any parent to have to go 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.”

Click here to view other emojis used as code words for drugs, listed on the DEA’s website.

About the Author:

Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.