Drugs in the Time of COVID: Interim Report
- DURING THE FIRST LOCKDOWN, DESPITE FEARS OF NATIONAL DRUG SHORTAGES, AVAILABILITY REMAINED LARGELY STABLE, AS DID QUALITY AND PRICE
- OVER 1 IN 10 PURCHASES WERE MADE ON THE DARKNET
- 62% OF IN-PERSON DRUG SUPPLIERS KEPT SOCIALLY DISTANCED DURING THE FIRST LOCKDOWN
- 47% OF RESPONDENTS HAD MORE FREQUENT CONTACT WITH THE POLICE COMPARED TO ‘BEFORE THE PANDEMIC’
Since the beginning of the first national coronavirus lockdown, Release has operated a public, online survey designed to monitor how people are buying their drugs. The purpose of this survey, which is open to anyone residing in the UK over the age of 18, is to determine the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic, and corresponding restrictions, have had on buying illegal substances. In the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted all aspects of our lives, it is reasonable to expect that with lockdowns and global restrictions on movement, the drug market will also be impacted.
This interim report presents findings from the first 2,621 responses, received between the survey’s launch on the 9th April 2020 and the 17th September 2020 (inclusive); which captures drug purchases made in anticipation of and during the first national lockdown, as well as purchases made during the easing, and eventual lifting, of that first lockdown. The survey is still ongoing and can be accessed from the Release website. Findings from 18th September 2020 onwards, and overall, will be published in the final report in May/June 2021.
- The majority of respondents did not report finding a supplier, or a desired drug, to be more difficult when comparing their experiences to before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, difficulties in finding a supplier, and a desired drug, were more often reported as the first national lockdown eased and lifted – an observation consistent with supply shortages. More than 1 in 10 purchases were made on the darknet.
Judith Aldridge, Lead Author, says: “At the start of lockdown, many presumed that the drugs market would be severely affected by border closures across the Globe and by ‘stay at home’ restrictions, but in fact the majority of respondents to the survey did not report finding a supplier, or their desired drug, to be more difficult compared to before the arrival of COVID-19. We did, however, observe increased difficulties in purchasing drugs as the first lockdown eased and was lifted, this also coincided with reports of increased prices, which would be consistent with supply shortages starting to have an effect on the market. Our results seem to suggest that suppliers were charging more and, in some cases, reducing deal-sizes rather than sacrificing the purity of the drug they were supplying”.
“One in ten purchases reported in the survey were made on darknet markets, and of these, 13% reported having used the darknet for the first time. It may be that the pandemic prompted a shift to online buying in order to skirt some of the additional risks involved in making face-to-face drug purchases during lockdown, and to obtain products not otherwise locally available. About one quarter of respondents stated that they planned to use darknet markets if they could not find the drug they were looking for locally. This suggests that these markets may have been seen as an attractive alternative to face-to-face drug buying during the pandemic.”
- Purchases of cannabis products were most commonly reported across all periods of the pandemic (7 in 10 purchases overall), as expected. ‘Party drugs’, such as MDMA/ecstasy, were infrequently purchased, which could reflect fewer opportunities to socialise as a result of the pandemic-related restrictions.
- Whilst the survey primarily focuses on drug purchases, when asked about drug use, more respondents said that their drug use had increased since the start of the pandemic, rather than staying the same, or decreasing.
- In connection to almost two-thirds (62%) of drug purchases made during lockdown, respondents reported that their suppliers adhered to government-advised social distancing measures.
Laura Garius, Policy Lead for Release and co-author of the report, says: “In addition to the findings that suppliers were adhering to social distancing measures for the majority of purchases made during lockdown, we also saw suppliers adopting measures similar to those adopted by legal markets in order to further prevent virus transmission. These measures included suppliers accepting card payments, disinfecting cash, and modifying their packaging. The additional precautions taken by suppliers to protect their buyers challenge longstanding perceptions of suppliers as ‘morally bereft actors’”.
Respondents were also asked about their experience of using drugs during the first lockdown, and as lockdown eased in the summer months of 2020. Worryingly, more people reported experiencing: increased withdrawal symptoms, increased non-fatal overdoses, and increased injection equipment-sharing, than the number of people reporting reduced, or the same level of, these harms. We also asked people about their experiences of policing during the first lockdown and found that when compared to before the pandemic, more respondents reported increased contact with the police than reduced, or the same level of, contact with police. Laura Garius commented, “This reflects reports we received on Release’s national legal helpline, with an increased number of calls from people being stopped and searched by police for drugs, the majority of callers being from Black and other ethnic minority communities - begging the question of why this was a priority for police in the middle of a pandemic.”
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional risk(s) for people who use drugs. Whilst the pandemic has led to discovering new ways to provide harm reduction services, such as delivering or mailing supplies, extending prescription lengths, medicine hotlines for prescriptions, screening clients for COVID-19 symptoms in efforts to prevent transmission, as well as smaller initiatives such as Release’s own ‘essential-journey’ travel cards to assist in people’s journeys to services, more must be done to assist harm reduction services in their operations moving forward.
Notes to the editor:
— Release is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws, providing free and confidential specialist services to professionals, the public, and people who use drugs. Release also campaigns for the reform of UK drug policy, particularly the removal of criminal sanctions for possession offences, in order to bring about a fairer and more compassionate legal framework to managing drug use in our society.
— Please provide a link to our survey, which is currently live, in all media coverage. The survey can be accessed at: https://www.release.org.uk/coronavirus-drug-purchases-impact-survey
Laura Garius, Policy Lead, Release — firstname.lastname@example.org — 020 7324 2997
Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director, Release — email@example.com — 07900 002 632
Imani Robinson, Comms Strategist and Racial Justice Lead, Release — firstname.lastname@example.org — 0207 324 2978