The app, according to authorities, promised a variety of illegal drugs: cocaine, methamphetamine, “molly” (also known as ecstasy or MDMA) and “shrooms,” a slang word for psychedelic mushrooms.
It’s called Banana Plug, and it was still available on Apple’s app store as of Wednesday, even after police accused its creator, Collin Riley Howard, of using the technology to sell illegal drugs. The app is advertised as a game “that involves bananas and plugs.” But authorities say it invited customers to make special requests for illegal substances. Below the app’s title reads: “We Have What You Want.”
Howard, an 18-year-old student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, advertised Banana Plug using posters around campus, authorities say. After a campus police officer noticed the posters, federal authorities and campus police launched a sting operation on Howard.
The name of the app appears to be a play on the university’s mascot, the Banana Slug. Plug is a street name for a drug supplier.
An undercover officer with Homeland Security Investigations downloaded the app and asked to buy marijuana and cocaine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. The officer communicated with Howard via the social media app Snapchat to coordinate the transaction. The officer bought drugs four times in November, including more than five grams of methamphetamine, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Howard was arrested last week during the fourth meeting with the undercover officer, authorities said. The Sunnyvale, Calif., man was indicted on four federal drug charges, including distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine. He was released after a court appearance Tuesday. It was not immediately known whether he has an attorney.
If convicted, Howard faces decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines. Two of the charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $1 million fine. The other two each carry up to 40 years imprisonment and $5 million in fines.
A UC-Santa Cruz spokesman said Howard was enrolled at the school for less than a month and is no longer a student.
“We take seriously the safety of our campus community and work hard to protect our students. Any student in our community having trouble with drugs or alcohol is encouraged to utilize the resources provided to students through the Student Health Outreach and Promotion (SHOP) program in the Cowell Student Health Center,” university spokesman Scott Hernandez said in a statement.
Digital platforms have become a tool for some involved in illicit activities. In Australia and Britain, for example, a messaging app called Wickr has reportedly been used in drug transactions. The app, developed by a San Francisco-based company with the same name, uses encryption and allows for messages to expire.
Grindr, a popular dating app for gay men, has also been used to sell and promote illegal drugs, according to a report by NBC News. Users type code words, capital letters and emoji to signal the substances they’re selling, the report says.
For three years, a website known as Silk Road operated as a black market for illegal goods. Bitcoin-driven drug transactions thrived on the Dark Web, which isn’t easily accessible to the general public. Silk Road was shut down in 2013, and its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison in 2015.