Side event: Impacts of COVID-19 on the drug market: a multi-country multi-analysis study

Organized by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation with the support of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy and Release

Dr Monica Barratt – Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT, Australia: I’ll be speaking about global drug market shifts during the pandemic from the global drugs survey. I would like to acknowledge a long list of people who have helped with this as well as organisations there on the screen. So, I’ll briefly look at what the global drug survey is drug markets in the pandemic, some of our results from our survey from last year. So, the pandemic happened last year and suddenly, a lot of us were placed into a very different situation. I started to ponder and myself and Judith who’s on this call today, wrote a little bit about how this might affect drug markets, how we might find out both the pandemic, and the changes in society that came around with the pandemic and how it might affect the way that drugs shift around the world and, indeed, demand, as well as supply for drugs. The Global Drug survey is the largest drug survey in the world. We do an annual survey normally. We’re independently funded and our mission is to promote honest discussions about drug use and to help people use drugs more safely. And basically, April last year, we realised that we had to do something quite quickly, to work out what was about to happen with drug markets at that time. So we put together a special edition on global drug survey, it was run in May and June of last year, available in 10 languages. It was a 10 to 20 minute survey with no payments offered so basically a cross sectional survey, And we recruited through our partners. Here’s an example, through vice.com and through a number of different social media means. We looked at a number of market indicators, in relation to demand we wanted to understand whether people’s use had increased or decreased and we asked people to compare the current use to use in February before the restrictions began in most countries, and we looked at reasons for increased and decreased use, as well as some information about their last purchase, and what was different about that purchase, and also we asked whether they had experienced any major sort of general changes in the markets in the country. And we looked at about 20 different drug types separately. So we recruited over 25,000 people, and you can see on the page there the countries that they come from. And we also looked at what the people that responded were mainly people under 35 years, with a gender bias towards cis men. we did have 2% Trans and non binary participate. Most of our sample does identify as white and we certainly don’t reach people in unstable accommodation, so this is quite a specific sample I guess a fairly privileged sample. So just to look at one of the drugs of the major drug cannabis, and look at it via country and this is a question about changes in frequency of use, and we see there is not a lot of differences between countries, and cannabis was a drug that people reported increasing the use and I think this has been borne out by a number of other surveys and other data points that we’ll see later on as well. Whereas when you compare that to MDMA you see a different pattern, people were more likely to say they had decreased the use of MDMA or it has stayed the same. And what we did was we had a look at different ways of looking at decreased demand. So, these were reasons why people, decreased the use of different drug types. So on this slide we’ve got the 35% at the bottom is the title sample over 25,000 global sample. 35% said they had decreased the use of a drug in some fashion. And the most common reasons for that would also they didn’t want to use that drug in that different context, their lives have changed enough and this related very much to the drugs that are used in leisure settings, such as MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, amphetamine etc And when we looked at the increase in demand. This was 40% of the sample reporting some kind of increased demand. And this mainly applied to cannabis and benzodiazepines, people had more time to use the drug and were more bored but then you see some of the other responses there was they were more stressed they were more lonely, more depressed and more concerned about what was going on during that stressful time at the beginning of the pandemic. They were also some measures of decreased supply, although these were less commonly described, and more applicable to cannabis, and there were very few indications of increased supply or increased availability. So if we looked at some of these market indicators across three different drugs, the most popular in our sample which was cannabis, MDMA and cocaine. So you see there cannabis increased demand whereas ecstasy and cocaine were more decreased demand. And we also saw in terms of stockpiling that was more often reported for cannabis than other drugs. So we also asked that question about general market indicators, and for this at the time again this was the beginning of pandemic, around half the sample said that they believe there was decreased availability of drugs more generally in their country, and around a third said they’d been an increase in price more generally in the country, we didn’t really get much change in purity or range. When we asked this general question, and looking at the decreased availability by country it’s quite different when you compare. so the Netherlands – less people reported decreased availability with some of the other countries listed. So more recently as this data was collected in May/June last year I thought I’d have a look at the most recent data that we got through global drug survey, which was just in the last few months. Compare that to the survey data from a year before and before that, so we’ve got three years of data on prices here. And what we basically see, are those prices are converted into Euros and reported as medians, across these countries. We really don’t see much change between pre COVID and post COVID, there certainly hasn’t been a market increase in prices for one gramme of cocaine, there is a slight increase there in Germany. And we do have a really large number of people responding in Germany so it’s not necessarily a blip, but not much to report really. We did the same thing for MDMA, one tablet. And we see there again, there’s not a lot to report in terms of prices going up and between before and after COVID. Indeed, some prices have actually decreased slightly. And this is very similar when we looked at one gramme of MDMA price as well.

So in terms of the summary. There was signs reduced demand and then also some signs of increased demand, especially in relation to cannabis and benzos, and the price shocks were not detected or pre imposed COVID with cocaine and MDMA that I showed you just then. The global drug survey, certainly isn’t global. there’s a lot of parts of the world we don’t cover in Africa and Asia, etc. So that’s a huge limitation of what we do. And as I mentioned before, we have a certain population that we’re able to access. When we look across countries like these, we do lose that nuance so something might be happening in a certain part of Australia and not in another part of Australia, we lose that nuance, so there’s obviously a few caveats.

Dr Laura Garius, Release, UK: I’m presenting the interim findings from releases drug purchases impact survey, which was launched at the beginning of the UK is first lockdown, and it’s sought to look at availability of drugs and the quality and price of the drugs that were available over the pandemic. Okay so this was an advert from for our survey which is still ongoing, by the way, this was an online survey, It’s a transaction based survey which means the unit of analysis. We encourage people to complete the survey every time they do a transaction. This was available to 18 and plus year olds residing in the UK, and today the results I’m sharing from the 2621 responses that we received between the survey launch on the ninth of April 2020 on the 17th of September 2020 Which nicely bookends, some key milestones of the first UK national lockdown, there will be report coming at the end of the year which looks at lockdowns, two and three in the UK as well. A quick snapshot of our sample, is that it was majority young people aged 18 to 24, predominantly male overwhelmingly white, and most people were either in employment or studying at university. We looked at the purchases captured over four key milestones of the pandemic in the UK, we looked at people buying drugs in anticipation of the first lockdown. So we asked people, the date of the transaction so we could look at purchases made before the 23rd of March, 2020 for us in the UK. We also looked at purchases made during the lockdown, and when a number of shops reopened. And when the lockdown lifted across most parts of the UK, not all, so purchase made after what we called Super Saturday when many places reopened in the UK. So let me share with you some very quick findings, I’m going to share with you the kind of distribution of the drugs of those 2621 transactions, here’s what we saw, we saw that seven in 10 transactions were for cannabis. The next most popular drug but not by a close margin whatsoever was cocaine at 9% of total purchases made, followed by psychedelics at 6% of purchases made then MDMA at 4% and ketamine and 4%. And just to quickly say interesting to see psychedelics, with more transactions more purchases than MDMA lightly reflecting what Monica said that there are less opportunities in leisure environments to use MDMA ecstasy, and also to say, this is reflective of our sample, you see very minimal purchases of heroin, benzodiazepines, crack cocaine reported here. Release also had a network of experts around the country to report on those drugs which we knew probably wouldn’t be captured by our online survey.

 

We also wanted to look at availability and we have a number of indicators, but I’ll just talk about the main three here. So we asked people, when completing the survey, whether they found it more difficult to find a seller, whether they had bought from someone other than a preferred seller, and whether they’d found it more difficult to buy the drug that they wanted. What we can see here is that there was difficulty. This reduced availability as it were, increases over the time periods. it’s increasing and decreasing in difficulty as locked down eased and lifted, which is extremely interesting. What is also extremely interesting is that for the majority of purchases, respondents did not report saying that it was more difficult to find a supplier or the desired drug. So actually there was kind of remarkable stability against these unprecedented restrictions in movement, and in border control, etc. But the difficulties did come into play more as the lockdown is lifted, which is really interesting for us because this speaks to supply shortages, as well as the risk of supplying in public. During the lockdown itself when transactions were much more visible And we also know that stop and search increased during that time which I will come on to later in the presentation, we think is a combination of real supply shortages, and the increased risk of selling during the lockdown itself. We also asked people about where they purchased their drugs from. In particular we were asking about the dark net to see if there had been any change there. What we found is of those transactions, 11% were made on the dark net, And that is higher than the previous global predictions of one in 10 transactions being purchased through the dark net, but not as high as perhaps we might have expected, but we do see a proportion of new users and we also saw that a quarter of our sample said they would, or they plan to use the darknet if they couldn’t get the drug they wanted locally, which is rather high. So are we seeing that this increased availability in the home, has led to people acquiring the skills and turning to the darknet. Technology is playing a really important role, but not necessarily on the dark net for all of the countries involved. Price was something we were really interested in. So we asked people completing the survey what was the price of this purchase compared to what you’re used to before the pandemic. So was it the same price was it a lower price than you’d expect, or was it higher. And what you can see here for price is that actually, as Monique already alluded to, there’s remarkable stability, given the circumstances. And if you look at the orange bar in the centre, that’s the proportion of transactions in each of the four time periods that remain the same as what the respondent was used to before the pandemic, we do see that it decreases from 74% of transactions being the same price to 67%, but actually that still the majority of people found that the price of the purchase was the same as before the Coronavirus pandemic. What is interesting though is that the change does keep happening over the four time periods and change, and particularly perceived price of purchase increases over the four time periods so we see that was 14% of purchases were seen as higher price in anticipation of lockdown, it moved to 22% saw that prices were higher as the lockdown lifted, which also speaks to drug shortages. We see similar but perhaps more pronounced patterns of purity, where again for the majority, purity of their purchase compared to before the pandemic remained the same but this did change more so than price, it moved from 81% in that anticipation phase of transactions being the same purity as what you’d expect to 56% as locked down lifted so there’s a bigger change there. Interesting though, we see a bit of variation between whether people thought it was lower purity or higher, but the fact that, for some, it remained the same or was even higher quality than before the pandemic speaks to suppliers responding to those drug shortages with increasing the price or reducing the deal size, as opposed to adulterating products. We wanted to ask about the suppliers. We know that suppliers do care about their consumers and their risks. So what did UK suppliers do if anything during the pandemic, to prevent virus transmission for their customers. Well what we saw in this is a snapshot of just supplier proportions during the lockdown, so for purchases made during the lockdown. What did people perceive that suppliers were doing well? 62% of transactions, the suppliers went to meet to socially distance, 38% of times they were wearing gloves, 31% They were wearing masks, 30% of times they were using different packaging, and this is actually remarkably similar to what the public were doing with that social distancing masks, during the start of the lockdown as well. We also asked respondents to give further comment on this. So, one example is some dealers are doing contactless drop offs with bank transfer, some of them throwing it through a window, so variations in sophistication, but contactless nonetheless. vendors said packages were put together by someone wearing masks and gloves, vacuum sealed bags, wet with disinfectant. And we know that in contactless payments giving credit, delivery was adopted by a large majority of or large proportion of suppliers. We couldn’t do the survey without asking about drug use, so I’m coming to the end I’m wrapping my time, but 43% of purchases overall said that there probably is an increase compared to before the pandemic, so we know that drug use and demand is seeming to increase in the UK for our sample. And finally, there’s a number of homes that we also want to ask about committed before the pandemic, I can’t get to all of them but we know that overdose has been reported more often. Withdrawal has been reported more often but something that we’re really interested at Release is the increased contact with police, which we’ve talked about ourselves on talking drugs and we know from research that the Metropolitan Police in particular have really increased their stop and search during the pandemic when we’re meant to be social distancing which is a concern for us. So I’m ending by acknowledging that obviously this COVID 19 is a major health pandemic, but it’s not in isolation, the pandemic of racism is ongoing and disproportionate policing. And these tragedies are separate, but they do intersect, especially when we see deaths of COVID in ethnic minority communities being higher, and also stop and search for drugs being disproportionately higher as well. But just to summarise and echoing Monica that we did see adaptations made, but there’s been remarkable resilience in the face of this, you know these restrictions to movement and border control, and the harms however to people who use drugs are increasing and that’s something that we need to focus on rather than increasing law enforcement, which doesn’t in fact supply or use overall.

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