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Has the illegal drug trade outsmarted a pandemic?

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Unreported Europe
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Andrew Cunningham is head of the Markets, Crime and Supply Reduction sector at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) located in Lisbon. It's an agency that works hand in hand with EUROPOL. Cunningham has unique in-depth knowledge on recent developments within European and global drug trafficking. He agreed to give us his insight and “the big picture” on how COVID-19 is changing distribution networks and trafficking routes. We also get the nitty-gritty on upcoming challenges.

Have you noticed any changes related to COVID-19?

It was clear that, during the early stages of the pandemic, when many countries were introducing restrictions, some areas experienced availability issues. Some drugs just were not available on the market. This led to some price increases in some places, as well as some perceived issues with the quality of drugs — some users saying that the drugs were not the same quality as they were. We would express this in terms of purity or potency of the drug. So, some users were reporting less pure drugs on the market. However, it would appear that this was much of a temporary situation. This was experienced during the beginning of the pandemic. However, towards the end of 2020, we were seeing that this was much of a temporary situation and there was a fairly robust bounce back noted in most places.

How have criminal networks adapted to changes linked to COVID-19?

For heroin and cocaine, which are both drugs produced outside the EU, those need to be transported in, we saw that with heroin there was some disruption to the trafficking routes. When we talk about heroin trafficking to the EU, we are talking about three main trafficking routes: The main one is the Balkan route, which is an overland route going from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and then into Europe. That’s overland. And because it’s overland, a lot of the COVID-19 restrictions that were imposed at borders disrupted some of the trafficking on the Balkan route. When trucks got into Bulgaria, they had to be escorted by police escort, across the country, for instance. This disrupted some of the heroin trafficking into Europe. But it is very clear to us, that organised crime groups can adapt very quickly. We’ve seen this during the pandemic. The other route for heroin coming is by maritime shipping routes, from the Makran coast on the south of Pakistan/Iran, into the Indian ocean and normally to Africa then up into Europe. What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that some of the maritime drug shipping has adapted into the Suez Canal and is coming up from the Arabian sea through Suez into the Mediterranean and into Europe that way. So, it is very clear that organised crime can adapt very quickly to these restrictions. Then we have not seen so much disruption to cocaine trafficking coming into Europe, unless you are talking about the small quantities because air passenger transport was severely disrupted, almost dropped to zero. The trafficking by that method was completely disrupted. However, some of the countries reported seeing more trafficking of cocaine in air freight, which continued to go. But the big quantities of cocaine coming to Europe are coming in maritime shipping containers and these containers are normally transporting legitimate goods and the legitimate goods continue to flow. A lot of these goods are perishable items, like exotic fruit juices, and they continue to flow throughout the pandemic and the cocaine continues to flow as well. Quite often I say: When you go to the supermarket you see bananas on the shelves, then there will be cocaine in Europe.

Have you seen any changes regarding the distribution of drugs?

During the early stages of the pandemic, when there was a very high-security presence on the streets because they were making sure that people were not outside when they should not be, the level of distribution of drugs on street level went down very rapidly and, in lots of countries, the seizure rates for drugs increased a lot because, if the police saw a car in the streets and it has been pulled over to ask where are you going, why you are out at the streets, and if there were drugs then they are going to find them. The adaptability of local level drug distribution due to the pandemic restrictions has been quite important and we assessed some of these methods, such as the use of social media and secured communication apps or ordering online with postal delivery. We think these are going to persist after we will have forgotten about COVID-19. Darknet markets, they seem basically a convenient method for some people to access small quantities of herbal cannabis for example. These developments had been observed before the C19 pandemic, however there has been a kind of acceleration factor for people adapting those methods, due to the restrictions that have been imposed on people due to the pandemic. So, we think that, like we are doing meetings on online-platforms now and working from home, we’ve had to adapt to these technologies quickly – and we have quickly adapted to them – some of this will persist after the pandemic as well and we have seen some of these alternative methods of sourcing drugs will persist after the pandemic.

Will there still be challenges in 2021?

If we are thinking about “the new normal”, of course, we cannot predict the future, but there are some indications that there will be a deep economic recession due to unemployment as we move out of the pandemic. And the negative economic consequences are likely to have an exaggerated effect on dependent drug users, which potentially could result in higher levels of drug-related crime, but we would not expect that to be uniform across Europe. It is expected that much of the population will have less disposable income available and that means less money in the pocket to buy drugs and this could lead to users maybe increasing alcohol intake or seeking less expensive substances such as new psychoactive substances or adopting more damaging routes of administration, like injecting. A potential threat on the horizon would be a rise in the use of methamphetamine in Europe and there are indications of an increase of crystal meth production in Europe at present. 
It appears to be for export just now but we can’t rule out the possibility of what we call a ‘supply-side push’, producers trying to establish a market where it doesn’t already exist. And the deep recession that I mentioned could be a driver that creates the correct conditions for such a threat to take hold. There is also a significant production of methamphetamine in Afghanistan. And, as we discussed already, the trafficking routes for heroin to Europe are well established and there is a clear potential for those trafficking routes to be used for methamphetamine coming to Europe as well – and this could become a big problem as we look forward after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To watch the full interview with Andrew Cunningham, the head of the Markets, Crime and Supply Reduction sector at the EMCDDA, click on the media player above.