A Black Market for Life-Saving Insulin Thrives on Social Media

Thousands of Americans are forced to rely on an illegal network of benevolent strangers to ensure they can access a life-saving drug invented in the 1920s

David Shultz
OneZero
Published in
7 min readJan 15, 2020

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A close up shot of a woman’s hand passing on an insulin pen to Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) during a town hall in 2017.
Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Stringer/Getty Images

InIn January 2017, Heather Walker was mugged at gunpoint in Oakland, California. Her attacker left her physically unharmed, but stole her purse. A graduate student with virtually no income, Walker’s bag wasn’t worth much. But it did hold something valuable: her insulin supply for the month, required for treating her Type 1 diabetes. Even though Walker immediately filed a police report, her insurance company refused to refill her prescription due to a lack of evidence. Her only recourse was to pay roughly $500 out of pocket for a new vial of the drug.

Instead, Walker did what many people with diabetes do when they can’t access the drugs they need: She reached out to a friend in the area who could give her some extra insulin. It is illegal to distribute or receive any prescription drug without a license, but because insulin is not a controlled substance, the penalties for trading the substance are murky.

“I think my parents probably would have lent me that money. But there’s something else wrapped up in this, and that’s the sense of justice,” Walker explains. “I shouldn’t have to pay $500 because I got mugged. I don’t want the system to win. I don’t want the insurance companies to win.”

For people with diabetes, tales like Walker’s are common. Insulin is an essential and life-saving drug used by 7.4 million people in the United States. Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly expensive. Between 2012 and 2016, the price of insulin effectively doubled for people with Type 1 diabetes, with costs jumping from $239 to $475 per month, on average. These controversial and dramatic price hikes, singled out by presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have become symbols of a failing American health care system. They have also created a thriving online black market for insulin.

Most of these online communities exist on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. They provide a space for users to support one another as well as set up in-person…

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