Editors note: This is an excerpt from the most recent UN report on International Drug Traffic.
The COVID-19 crisis is taking its toll on the global economy, public health and our way of life. The virus has now infected more than 3.6 million people worldwide, killed 250,000 and led Governments to take drastic measures to limit the spread of coronavirus disease 2019. Roughly half of the global population is living under mobility restrictions, international border crossings have been closed and economic activity has declined drastically, as many countries have opted for the closure of nonessential businesses.
Drug trafficking relies heavily on legal trade to camouflage its activities and on individuals being able to distribute drugs to consumers. The measures implemented by Governments to counter the COVID19 pandemic have thus inevitably affected all aspects of the illegal drug markets, from the production and trafficking of drugs to their consumption.
Having said that, the impact of those measures varies both in terms of the different business models used in the distribution of each type of drug and the approaches used by different countries to address the pandemic. These range from the closure of international border crossings, while allowing domestic travel, to moderate-to-strict shelter-in-place orders, or a complete lockdown of all activities, including suspension of essential services other than for emergencies. The impact on actual drug production may vary greatly depending on the substance and the geographical location of its production.
Based on the most recent data from government authorities, open sources, including the media, and the network of UNODC field offices, the evidence available suggests the following ongoing dynamics in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the illicit drug markets.
Measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are having a mixed impact on the drug supply chain The impact of the measures implemented to address the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have been most homogenous to date at the very end of the drug supply chain, in the destination markets. Many countries across all regions have reported an overall shortage of numerous types of drugs at the retail level, as well as increases in prices, reductions in purity and that drug users have consequently been switching substance (for example, from heroin to synthetic opioids) and/or increasingly accessing drug treatment. Some countries in the Balkans and in the Middle East, where measures are not so strict during the day, have, however, reported less disruption.
The overall impact on bulk supply is reportedly more heterogenous, both across drugs and across countries. Increased controls resulting from the implementation of measures to fight the spread of COVID-19 have had double-edged consequences on large-scale drug supply. Some countries, such as Italy and countries in Central Asia, have experienced a sharp decrease in drug seizures. Other countries, such as Niger, have reported a cease in drug trafficking. There have also been reports of organized criminal groups involved in drug trafficking becoming distracted from their usual illicit activities by emerging crime linked to the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, cybercrime and trafficking in falsified medicines in the Balkan countries.
On the other hand, other countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and Morocco, have reported large drug seizures, indicating that large-scale drug trafficking is still taking place, and some have reported an increase in interdiction resulting from increased controls. An example of an increase in drug enforcement is seen in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where an improvement in the interdiction of “county lines” activities, a trafficking modus operandi particular to COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use
that country in which young disadvantaged people are exploited, has been reported. “Fortuitous” drug interceptions in countries such as Egypt have also resulted in mid-scale drug seizures made during street controls, and reports from Nigeria indicate continued drug trafficking, with a possible increase
in the use of postal services.