Measures by governments across the world to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the widespread disruption of trafficking routes for illegal drugs, mainly by air and on land, upping some prices, according to a new UN report published on Thursday.
The report, on drug market trends during the coronavirus crisis, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), highlighted that many countries across all regions have reported an overall shortage of numerous types of drugs at the street level, as well as price increases for consumers on the black market and reductions in purity.
Some drug users have consequently been switching substances, for example from heroin to synthetic opioids, and some are increasingly seeking accessing to drug treatment.
#COVID19 pandemic disrupts the #drug trafficking routes by air leading to increased use of maritime and land routes, depending on the drugs smuggled.— UN Office on Drugs & Crime (@UNODC) May 7, 2020
More in the latest UNODC research brief:
Meth, cocaine, heroin, cannabis
Because synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, known commonly as meth, tend to be trafficked across continents by air, air travel restrictions and flight cancellations are drastically impacting the illegal cargo.
Cocaine, on the other hand, is mostly trafficked by sea, and is continuing to be dtected in European ports during the pandemic, said the report.
Meanwhile opiate seizures in the Indian Ocean illustrate that the pandemic’s impact on the lucrative heroin business, which is primarily smuggled by land, is pushing it towards being trafficked along maritime routes.
Given that cannabis is often produced near places where it is bought and sold, traffickers of the drug – which is mostly still illegal worldwide - are less reliant on shipping it across regions and borders which may be under coronavirus lockdown.
With several countries reporting drug shortages at the retail level, the UNODC analysis projects an overall decrease in recreational drug consumption.
However, a shortage of heroin, which has been reported in Europe, South West Asia, North America and some countries in Europe, can trigger consumers to use harmful, domestically produced substances instead.
UNODC maintained that some users may switch to fentanyl and its derivatives.
An increase in pharmaceutical products, such as benzodiazepines, has also been reportedly doubling their prices in some areas.
And drug shortages are increasing the number of intravenous users who are also sharing injection equipment – all of which carry the risk of spreading diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and COVID-19 itself.
“The risk of drug overdose may also increase among those injecting drugs and who are infected with COVID-19”, according to UNODC.
COVID-19 lockdown restrictions could hinder opiate productions, where from March to June, Afghanistan’s harvest is at its height.
"A shortage of poppy lancers has already been observed in the western and southern provinces of the country, mainly due to the closure of a border crossing with Pakistan", the report said.
Turning to cocaine, a shortage of petrol or gasoline in Colombia is impeding production, while in Bolivia, COVID-19 is limiting the ability of state authorities to control coca bush cultivation, which could lead to an increase in coca production.
However, a drop in the price of cocaine in Peru for local consumers, suggests a reduction in trafficking opportunities. And the report flags that while this may discourage coca bush cultivation in the short-term, the looming economic crisis may lead more farmers to begin cultivating coca crops in all the major cocaine-producing countries.
An collapse in international trade during the pandemic, could also lead to shortages in precursor supplies – vital for manufacturing both heroin and synthetic drugs.
Down the line
In the long-run, the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to lead to a lasting and profound transformation of the drug markets, said the UNODC report, arguing that it will only be fully understood following more research.