The coronavirus pandemic has had an “immediate, disruptive impact” on the use and supply of illegal drugs, as well as services used to help drug users.
In the EU drugs agency’s European Drug Report 2020, the situation for users, dealers and law enforcement is shown to have changed dramatically with the lockdown measures imposed in many countries to counter the spread of COVID-19.
While the aim of the report is to reveal trends from the previous year, it highlights a number of ways coronavirus is putting some vulnerable drug users at further risk.
An estimated 20 million young adults in Europe are thought to have used drugs in the last year.
How the pandemic changed consumption habits
Due to lockdowns imposed in a number of European countries, drugs that are often taken in social or party settings saw a decline in reported usage, according to the report.
These include cocaine and MDMA. However, this may have also been driven by disruptions to market supply chains, again caused by restrictive measures.
There were reports of a greater interest in or use of new substances, such as benzodiazepines on the new psychoactive substances market.
Some drug users may also be susceptible to catching coronavirus, due to behaviours associated with drug-taking.
For example the sharing of cannabis joints or straws for taking cocaine, or equipment such as pipes and spoons for drugs such as crack or heroin, could be a factor in spreading the virus.
And catching coronavirus may be riskier for some drug users, who due to their habits could have compromised immune systems or other conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
Buying and selling during a pandemic
Lockdowns in European countries inevitably caused a change in the way drugs were sold, with local markets disrupted as freedom of movement was restricted.
While local dealing appears to be returning to normal along with relaxation of lockdown measures, the report states some changes in behaviour that have been observed may persist.
For example the use of online sales via darknet markets, social media and encrypted messaging apps “appear to be playing a more prominent role in the sourcing
Less face-to-face dealing and less use of cash has also been observed.
The director of the EU drugs agency, Alexis Goosdeel, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate, disruptive impact on drug use, retail supply and services and has highlighted the special needs of people who use drugs.”
“While the long-term impact of the pandemic remains to be assessed, in the short-term we are already noting changes, such as greater interest in the use of digital technologies in the drug market and innovation in drug treatment through e- and m-health solutions.
“We must be concerned, however, that, as the economic repercussions of the crisis take effect, some in our communities may become more vulnerable to drug problems and drug market involvement, putting greater pressure on our already stretched services.”
Huge rise in overdose deaths among over-50s
Another finding in the report - unrelated to coronavirus - is the higher proportion of drug overdose deaths among older age groups.
Between 2012 and 2018 the number of drug overdose deaths among the 50-plus age group increased by 75%.
This indicates the issue of drug overdose deaths is increasingly associated with ageing long-term users, who need to be targeted for treatment and harm reduction measures.
The mean age of those who died in Europe continued to increase, reaching 41.7 years in 2018. The estimated number of overdose deaths involving illicit drugs in the EU in 2018 is 8,300.
The report says this is a relfection of the ageing nature of a large part of Europe’s opioid-using population, mainly in western Europe, who are at greatest risk of drug overdose death.
In some countries, a proportion of opioid cases may be related to deaths involving opioids in the context of long-term pain management.
More large shipments being intercepted
Another of the key trends highlighted in the report is the increase in interceptions of large shipments of illegal drugs.
The growing seizures of hauls of cocaine, cannabis and heroin being transported by sea suggests production and supply continues to grow, and raises concerns that criminal gangs are infiltrating supply chains, shipping routes and ports.
Cocaine seizures are now at record numbers, with 181 tonnes captured in 2018, the report states.
Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands are key countries for the interception of large quantities.
The purity of cocaine was also found to be at the highest level for a decade in 2018.
High-strength MDMA on the market also shows a greater need for user-awareness, the drugs agency says, with tablets containing “extremely high levels of MDMA” posing serious health risks for users.