Side event: The impact of COVID-19 on drug markets – one year later

Organized by the Programme Development and Management Unit of the UNODC Research and Trend Analysis Branch

Moderator: This is the side event on the impact of COVID on drug markets, one year later. COVID has really changed our lives and also the way we’re working. It has resulted in actually more work because in addition to our normal research, we are also conducting research on how COVID impacts the drug and crime situation. It also has resulted actually in some efficiencies and improvement in how we do our research. We have recognised the importance of real time data. Member states have supported us a lot, because they have been reporting to us more regularly on the situation on drugs and crime and how COVID has impacted that. In addition, we have started to use other ways of collecting data to have more real time information. But the most relevant for us and for this session is that we have also strengthened our Global Research Network. Last year we produced the first report on the impact of COVID on drug markets. This was the first joint production of the global network which covers UNODC headquarters plus focal points in the field offices. COVID has made us accelerate this process, which was actually very much needed, which was also actually mentioned to us by the evaluators when they looked at the functioning of UNODC research. So I think this is an extremely positive result. The other positive result is that we are doing more webinars to share all our findings, although people may disagree and say there’s too many webinars and meetings, but it has also made it possible to really have people from across the world on board and discuss certain issues.

What we have seen as the impact of COVID on the drug market One year basically after the pandemic started. This event is an update of our previous COVID report, so we can see what we thought would happen and what actually happened. So we will start with a global overview and then we will get the field perspective and then I hope we still have time to discuss a little bit. I would like to invite programme officer from the UNODC research branch, and our main researcher on this topic to give a global overview of the impact of COVID on drug markets.

UNODC: It has been quite a year in terms of pandemic and responses to the pandemic and all the restrictions that have affected our daily lives. And indeed, it has reflected as well in drug markets at least to a certain extent. The big question was How did COVID 19 affect drug markets and what impact could we see already? And so we have to start off with the mechanisms how pandemic and the responses of member states to the condemning interact with drugs markets. Some of the changes in our daily lives that have been reflected as well in the markets, and this is certainly something that we have all experienced is mobility restrictions and controls. So in between and around May there have been more than 70% of all countries and territories been affected by some entry restrictions or entry conditions. The global merchandise trade and the commercial air freight have been strongly affected, not as much as personal travel. Air travel and air freight profits has plummeted extremely between March 2020 and April 2020, so this was a reduction of 94% in comparison to the year before. Our daily lives have been affected by lockdown measures, curfews, closures in the service industry, unemployment, reduced social contact and social distancing, all of that relates to drug markets because drugs are trafficked along legal cargo they’re trafficked in aeroplanes, they’re trafficked in private cars, they’re trafficked in submarines, they are trafficked in containers. So all of that affect the drug markets. On the supply side on the trafficking side, and of course on the US side so if this goes, if the service industry is closed. If bars and restaurants cannot open, people have less opportunities to consume drugs in such settings which obviously affects consumer behaviour on the demand side.

Some words on the data sources that we use for this research, we have asked member states to contribute and to provide data to university and 81% of the Member States responded. The second pillar of the research was the information collected by Global Research Network. Lastly, obviously there’s a lot of research going on internationally by international organisations as well as in academia, all of which has been incorporated in this research. Some limitations, remain. So this is a preliminary assessment of the impact and the situation is evolving as more data is coming in. So there’s still a lot of retrospective studies going on of what happened and what is still lasting, just no comprehensive data available yet. It’s one year, so there’s a lot of data available, but it’s certainly not comprehensive and the coverage remains connected to areas where information was available.

COVID-19 and crop production. We were interested how and if COVID-19 interrupted or exacerbated drug production globally. The effects very strongly across regions and across substances for opiates for example which includes opium cultivation and heroin production. We did not see any major impact. There have been reports that the opium harvest in Afghanistan has been hindered in the early stages but these were quickly overcome, and we did not receive any reports on shortages of precursor substances for every manufacturer and trafficking activities, indeed, show as well that there has not been a major effect of COVID-19 on opiates for Coca. The situation is slightly different because we did not hear anything about the disruption in coca cultivation. However, the supply with coca in the early stages of the pandemic, because traffickers were not able to go to the producing areas and to purchase the products from farmers and from producers, which led to a strong price decrease in those areas of cocat, because there were no buyers anymore. In April, the price of a coca leaf was almost 50% lower than it has been in January 2020. So farmers kept harvesting coca leaf and converting it into cocaine, but there were no buyers. During 2020 however, the market appear to recover once restrictions were eased, in particular those source countries trafficking activities could resume, and the drugs could enter the market at times even at increased pace because those inventories need to be cleared for synthetic drugs and I’m sure we will hear later on from my colleagues from Southeast Asia, there was no major disruptions in that region. The same goes for Western Europe where we see based on dump sites, storage facilities and production sites for MDMA and methamphetamine, that production appears to have been continuing throughout the course of the pandemic. There has been, however, reports on some disruption in the early stages due to the lack of precursor substances. There were some difficulties in Western Europe, where traffickers, due to border restrictions, could not reach production sites and there have been some innovations, but it seems that the market has quickly overcome all these initial difficulties. What we did see and what was very interesting as well was that there was a drop of wholesale prices of MDMA, which is ecstasy, so it’s a party drug in Europe, and that points out to decrease in demand because since nobody could consume these drugs anymore on festivals or in bars and restaurants. The price of MDMA has dropped visibly, for cannabis it’s very difficult to monitor and evaluate production because it’s very difficult to measure it, but overall demand have appeared to be on the increase. And we saw for example continuing large scale seizures in North Africa and other countries pointing towards continuing trafficking. The North Africa result in particular would refer to international trafficking from Africa to Europe. However, within Africa there have been some results, my colleague customer will touch up later on.

For drug trafficking. So for getting the product from the source to end consumers often used by international routes by land, by sea using legal cargo or using specialised aircrafts. We’ve seen the drug fees, slows down visibly during the second and third quarters of 2020, but we return to the pre COVID late 19 levels later on. This may be explained by reduced opportunities and increased risks for drug traffickers. That was for example in America where the land routes have become much more risky due to increased border controls for law enforcement. And then this may have led to a slowdown in drug trafficking. There may have been some changed law enforcement activity so that the focus from intercepting drugs may have shifted towards enforcing COVID-19 related measures. Over the course of the year, the situation normalised and sometimes even increase seizure activities later in that same year. In terms of trafficking routes, we’ve seen an increased use of waterways and maritime routes, and that is further intensified during 2020. What has been reported as well was the increased use of private aircraft or for the transatlantic cocaine trafficking increased use of specialised boats so private boats instead of cargo. We’ve seen a trend of larger shipments that emerged in many regions, so this was a really interesting finding that we received from many regions, and for many substances across the world, that there is a trend towards larger shipments so that, including some requisitions that in several record seizures of cocaine of more than 10 tonnes recorded which was really extraordinary. It’s very early to say what the exact reasons are. It could be the acceleration of an existing trend, it could be a shift in trafficking patterns, it could be the drug trafficking organisations find it reduced opportunities to traffic and that’s why they are increasing the shipment size, but it’s been a very interesting development because it has been so global in one sense. You’ve seen an increase in the delivery of drugs, just like there has been a very strong increase in home delivery of food for example for many of us. You’ve seen other methods of drug trafficking, using food transport, the disguise of essential workers so there was a strong adaptability of these people selling drugs at the retail level too. There was an increased use of drones reported by many member states across regions. We saw an increased use of mail service for small scale seizures and the strong reduction in trafficking. The number of small scale seizures, and the distribution of cannabis for example in 2019, 37% of the cases in Europe have been seized by AI, in 2020 that reduced to only five. So in the seizure data that we have and that we have collected to contributions per member states, we could see these developments that are reflected in the seizure data that the retail distribution of the way people obtain drugs has changed from 2019 to 2021.

The importance of the darkness of drug trade. It’s still a relatively minor share of drugs that are purchased, via the internet and via the Darknet specifically, and the darknet markets are highly volatile and very challenging to monitor. However, there have been some good reports on how the darknet accessibility has changed over COVID and some reports found increases in popularity, while others found actually decreases in popularity of document markets. One thing that seems to be undisputed is the expansion of the Hydra market which targets mainly Russian speaking customers. But it’s very difficult to say it’s directly related to the pandemic or if it’s been a trend that is unrelated to this, but has been widely reported as well was the increased use of technology, contactless methods of purchasing products, and the distribution by those as already mentioned. So the increase in technology as we all experienced here seems to have been translated as well into the drug purchasing behaviour on COVID and drug use.

As I already mentioned in the beginning, as much as COVID has impacted our daily lives, it has impacted as well the way drugs are consumed by people who use drugs. Overall, there has been an increase of cannabis use and non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs such as MDMA or cocaine, rather decreased. However, this is not uniformly so for people who use drugs, mostly in social settings with others may have decreased overall, while for others who are consuming it, for example, against anxiety or to overcome boredom, use may have increased. So, it’s very heterogeneous across countries and across groups of people who use drugs. There have been reports of some shortages of heroin in the initial stages in some countries due to the strategy impediments. And this has led to a shift towards alternatives and often homemade alternatives, and increased demand for treatments. And, as already mentioned, the reason for increased use include more time available, with lock down measures and the closures of bars, more money available, boredom and anxiety. On the other hand, decreased use was rather related to the social distancing measures to do has been implemented. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the health situation of many people who use drugs. There have been initial disruptions in the provision of services and treatment, quite widespread in many countries. The drug treatment services were not considered as essential. Many reported that has been a lack of staff, or lack of personal protection equipment, closures of services to avoid the spread of COVID-19. And I’ve seen difficulties of people who will use drugs to access treatment facilities in lockdown and in fear of infection. Quite a large number of countries reported at least partially disrupted services in the early beginning.

So in terms of the health consequences, we have seen that there was an increase in overdose deaths and quite dramatically, in particular in countries heavily affected by the opioid crisis, and increase in harmful behaviour and report on increased demand for opiate agonist and then going into treatment. Many countries strive to overcome the COVID-19 related restrictions by innovations in treatment and service provision, and that was technology enabled. So, for example, online consultations and online prescriptions of drugs, contactless services, like for example vending machines to supply sterilised  equipment, and the delivery of substitution treatments, which means that for example that the daily doses of opiate agonist treatment were extended.

It’s unclear yet what of those will be lasting and what will be only temporary, as we all hope that these measures will be only temporary. The coming global deterioration of social and economic development and the potential severe economic crisis may lead to long term consequences. We will have a forthcoming book where we first provide a detailed overview of all the data that we have and try to provide at least some scenarios of how the COVID 19 pandemic could play out in the long run. Thank you very much.

Moderator: Thank you very much for being so comprehensive. Now I would like to give the floor to the Deputy Regional Representative in our office for Western, Central Africa, in Senegal. The office is in charge of programmes, and he will give a perspective from the field offices.

Deputy Regional Representative for Western Central Africa, UNODC: The regional office for Western Central Africa, acknowledged the importance of research in the implementation of its mandate in the region. We also cover 22 countries overall, 15 in West Africa, and seven in Central Africa, and as

First, there is a high prevalence of conflict, and this is the case in countries such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria and also post conflict settings such as Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Second, there is the issue of youth that 2% of the population is between 10 and 24 compared to the world average of 24% with some of the highest fertility rates in the world, 7 children per women. There is a lowest rate of GDP in the world. And finally, the region is a platform for drug trafficking in 2017, 77% of drug seizures of pharmaceutical opioids happened in West Africa in March, 2021. In this context, data is key for the development of programmes that match with the reality underground in order to develop programmes that would help to counter crime, for example, we need data analysis on how it works, what is being trafficked, where, when, how, etc. In 2006, at the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention against transnational organised crime, former executive director of UNODC highlighted the importance of research in the following terms because there is almost no data available on crime. What comparisons can be made among countries what forms of crime are greater threats than others and why our compass is broken because we are not even sure how to measure organised crime, let alone what to measure. Lack of data in particular is a serious challenge in the region, and even when they do data collection, tools often mean that the data only becomes available two years after. With the production of the world Drug Report, having field research capacity is key. First to bridge the gap in the availability of data through ongoing monitoring. Second, ensure the protection of regionally relevant analysis, third, regional analysis in global output in timely manner. Fourth, strengthening the capacity of states to collect and analyse data. And finally, to create a community of practice, between researchers and law enforcement agencies which fosters transnational cooperation to tackle organised crime underground.

Moderator: We take you as a champion of research and the importance of data and to also refer actually to the strategy for Africa, which also I believe puts very much the importance of data and evidence to the forefront. I would like to give the floor to our next speaker from Southeast Asia and it’s my pleasure to give the floor to him. He is a programme officer and illicit drug researcher from the regional office in Southeast Asia, and he will give us an update on the situation in his region.

Programme Office, UNODC Regional Office in Southeast Asia: Today I’m going to share the latest developments of the illicit market in Southeast Asia. Before I start, I’d like to mention that every indicator that I’m going to share with you today may not be all directly or indirectly related to COVID-19. However, what I will try to do is mention that this region has not been seriously impacted by COVID-19 and I will try to explain what might be the possibility for that. Opium poppy cultivation now in Myanmar has been decreasing every year since 2015, and you can see also the poppy prices has been also been going down recently. So, what we what we heard from the field office in Myanmar that this was not impacted by COVID-19 because the harvest was already done before COVID hit. However, the buyers had a limited accessibility to farmers, which may have brought further decreases in the prices working because of already the market has been shifting to synthetics, but because of COVID-19, farmers may have made a less income opportunity. I’d like to just explain where the two are especially as synthetic drug is manufactured in Southeast Asia. There is an area known as Golden Triangle. This known for the synthetic drug. These two basically autonomous regions and this environment provides opportunities for ethnic armed groups operating there as they coordinate and cooperate with organised crime groups. We see that the seizures of meth has been increasing every year since actually 2010, but you can see that the seizures. Thailand and Vietnam, sees a lot of sheer quantities of methamphetamine, in 2020, which is the preliminary data, they seized 177,472 tonnes of methamphetamine and about two thirds of them were seized by these five low income countries. Next We looked at the, the seizures of crystal meth in 10 South Asian country and you can see that the seizures of crystal meth decrease because it was at a time when basically all the countries in the region adopted strict border control. I would say the production of methamphetamine was naturally impacted. Between May and August, when the governments in the region started to lose, they are moving to mobility restriction.

Next, we also try to look at the price and purity data of the crystal map. Basically, Cambodia and Thailand employed around $1,000 per kilo and Malaysian for around $10,000. This is a record price among the price point for this wholesale crystal meth. And we can look at the purity data. It’s been actually quite stable even increasing in Cambodia. So all in all, when you look at the seizures, increase period has been stable, we can assume that the supply of methamphetamine overall in 2020 was not really disrupted by COVID-19, and is associated with meeting this restriction. I think it is important to highlight that the region has one of the largest chemical industry, because of China and India, as well as South East Asia itself also show the rapid increases in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. However the regulation is not really robust, and it has been really exploited by organised crime and non controlled chemical has been increasingly used for the manufacture of illicit drugs, and I think this may have been a driver.

This region was not really impacted much by COVID-19 when it comes to drug production. Organised crime groups are really flexible, and this is a good example. In 2020, organised crime groups used the border between Thailand, Laos, as a main entry point for crystal meth trafficking that comes from Myanmar. The reason is quite simple because the Thai authorities adopted a very strict border control between Thailand and Myanmar to stop the flow with all the peoples and movements. Because, Thailand, Myanmar had a higher COVID-19 cases, in comparison to Laos. The Thai authority really put a lot of border control around that area and organised crime groups been using the east side of Thailand. Basically, the border between Laos and Thailand as a main trafficking points.

Head of Research, UNODC regional Office in West Africa: We try to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on drug supply chains and on drug use also in the region. We mostly used data gathering from UNODC sources, but also open sources, and we complemented that data with interviews with drug enforcement agencies across the region. We send questionnaires to drug enforcement agencies to some of the treatment centres in the region. And we complemented this information with policy briefs reports that other organisations had produced. Overall, we got 50 questionnaires from drug enforcement officials treatment centres in the region. There’s still some caveats I mean, even though we did get access to a lot of data and a lot of analysis from drug enforcement agencies, there was a relatively low response rates, and there are countries where several drug enforcement agencies send responses, but we were not able to get responses from all the different countries in West Africa. The second challenge we had for this research is that there was a high response rate from law enforcement agencies rather than health professional, health actors. So it’s quite law enforcement oriented, the results that we obtained and the interlocutors that we had, and who responded to the questionnaire tended to be more general, and it was difficult to get them to really focus on the timeframe of the COVID pandemic, but also the effects of the pandemic so there was a lot of discussions around trends, but not dramatically linking the trends to the pandemic itself.

So we did get a findings that were of interest. One is to start with treatment and drug use. First of all, cannabis remains the most widely used drugs in the region. That’s particularly the case in Senegal Benin and Nigeria, there was an increase in the consumption of locally available drugs because hard drugs like cocaine and heroin were affected. A lot of users started using locally available drugs inside at least for the first few months of the pandemic, when there were travel restrictions. There were also changes in drug user behaviours, because of the curfews that existed in many West African countries over the pandemic. We had curfews at 6pm in the evenings depending on the states, and that meant for instance that a lot of the places where people consume drugs in the region, including drug saloons in Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, or in in unsafe spaces where drugs are mostly used in Senegal for instance people could no longer meet there because of the curfew, so there was this change of behaviour where people started using more drugs at home, which also led to domestic violence issues. There was an increased vulnerability of drug users because drug users were less able to access treatment due to travel restrictions in the country. So even at country level they were, travel restrictions, and that impacted, for instance, drug users from outside in Senegal to come to the treatment centre.  That really impacted the ability of drug users to seek treatment. Some of the treatments and facilities that try to adapt, Nigeria for instance started to do online counselling. It was good to see that the region reacted positively and that some of the treatment centre took measures. So there was this online counselling, but was really limited to a couple of countries in the region.

In terms of production, there was no major change over the pandemic. Cannabis remains mostly produced at regional and local level. So you have Ghana Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, who are major producers of cannabis. This is a standard trend in the region, but what we have seen is a local boost in transformation. So there was a boost in local transformation, particularly of cocaine. So small scale transformation that were dismantled and in Senegal, in particular, and one of the hypotheses for this is that because there were a lot of stocks of drugs that were stuck in the country because of the travel restrictions, traffickers try to transform the drugs locally for the local markets.

In terms of trafficking, there was a minor decline of international trafficking in the region, but it really picked up again. In the last few months of the pandemic so just to give you a sense, there were about 1 15 tonnes of drugs that were seized in 2020, including three tonnes of cocaine. Since 2021, at least 30 tonnes of drugs have been seized. In international waters of the Gulf of Guinea not too far from Cote d’Ivoire, six tonnes of cocaine were seized on a boat, three tonnes were seized in Gambia also in the beginning of the year, so we can see that the traffic is picking up again or at least that big seizures are happening. Since the beginning of 2021, some of the ways traffic is adapted, we’ve seen an increase in the use of postal parcels. There’s also been an increased use particularly for air travels of binational national news. So in order to avoid the entry restrictions or the travelling restrictions, particularly for traffic going from West Africa to Europe, drug mules tended to have both passports, they tended to have a passport from West Africa, and a passport from Europe and that allowed them to be able to travel to Europe without being affected by the travelling restrictions, and they tended to be relatively big seizures, so one traveller, for instance was picked up with 15 kilos by air travel. There was also an increase in fluvial transport. This is particularly the case for Nigeria for instance where there were roadblocks as part of the pandemic measures that the state took, and in order to avoid those roadblocks. Traffic is started using fluvial waters, and that’s the new trends, and what the law enforcement agencies were telling us is that it’s harder for them to hide to control what’s happening on the river waters and are less equipped to have seizures on waters.

Increase vulnerability to corruption in the region. We’ve seen the use of official vehicles for instance, to transport the drugs because official vehicles were less impacted by the travel restrictions in the region. And so you could pass a checkpoint for instance with a law enforcement pickup or with an ambulance or with an army vehicle, you will not stop at checkpoints, so there were several cases of military means. Three officials for instance in Asia, were caught inserting drugs in military vehicles. So judicial officials have also been facing increased corruption. There’s been several cases of police forces involved in corruption cases including in Guinea. So just to conclude, there’s been limited impacts on the production and the trafficking in the region, even though we’ve seen that there is an increase in local transformation, particularly of cocaine, and the use of fluvial trafficking. But the pandemic did affect the ability of the states to combat trafficking, which may explain why there were fewer seizures in 2020. The state’s ability to offer treatments also to drug users was also impacted because of the restrictions in treatment centres which sometimes have to close. So that really affected the ability of states to provide or to offer treatments to drug users in the region. Thank you.

Moderator: The next speaker is Camilo Lopez from the UNODC Colombia office. Camilo is in charge of research on illicit drug production, and he will give us an update on the drug markets in Colombia. Please go ahead.

Camilo Lopez, UNODC Colombia Office: We’ll talk about the impact of the COVID-19 on the drug markets in Colombia, specifically on the cocaine drug markets. So, I would like to start saying that the impact of the COVID-19 has been identified in both legal and illegal activities. So in the case of Colombia, although there are not standard trends that we could apply to every region in the country. We do identify some of the trends that make it possible to understand how to measure supply by the government to address the global emergency had that direct influence in the dynamics of the drug markets, the drug production and the drug trafficking. So, to understand the influence of the COVID-19. It is important to say that the impact is not the same throughout all the pandemic. So for this reason we propose an analysis in three different stages. So the first one, about strict lockdown by the Colombian authorities to prevent the COVID-19 infections. We have a second stage, about the economic reactivation after the lockdown to recover the legal, economic activities in the country. And finally, a third stage where we propose and try to approximate some of the risks, and maybe the threats that could arise in the short term.

So, starting from March to July 2020 the Colombian government, as many other countries, imposed on a strict quarantine to prevent the spread of community. And these not only affected the legal economy but also had repercussions on illicit drug production and trafficking activities. So this lockdown impacted on the Colombian coca markets, specifically in the trading of coca products. Because of the restrictions, it prevented the producers from reaching the trading points, so they couldn’t sell what they were producing. So, in some regions, the illegal groups promoted the provision on COVID-19 infection with lockdown measures and additionally in this period with the decrease in the vehicle traffic on roads and highways, the closure of the borders, and the presence of the authorities to ensure their compliance with the lockdown measures, the control of the traffic routes wire was also increased. So this would also lead to the coca producers and the criminal groups prefer to stop trafficking and temporarily start storing the drugs in production and trafficking songs. So, after this trickle down from August, we have the reactivation period where the withdrawal of the of some of the measures, lead to a reactivation of the legal economy, but also the illegal activities, reactivate as the coca producers also needed to recover from the lockdown, so we could see a gradual reactivation of the markets of the coca. And this also promoted the return of some illegal stakeholders who buy the coca products for further cocaine hydrochloride transformation, although at the beginning of this reactivation period, it was reported that the prices of coca products, decreased by up to 50%. Later there was an externalisation of the prices, until they reach the historical average level in October and November. So, also, because of their reactivation of the coca markets, the seizures of the cooking products in 2020 exceeded the amounts reported in 2019, and even an increase in the seizures was reporting in typical regions in the country in Colombia. So therefore, it can be concluded that the illicit drug production in Colombia was not stopped by the pandemic. But also, we can conclude that the authorities keep doing efforts to continue controlling the production and the trafficking. So, as a result of these efforts, it was reported that the preferences for the use of maritime traffic, and they consumed many containers, was used by the traffickers to keep moving the drugs from Colombia to Central America, Europe and Asia. And just to conclude about the risk and the threats, generated by the COVID-19, this pandemic has caused socio economic impacts on the vulnerable population, reaching serious levels of poverty. So these scenarios of vulnerability can become an opportunity to criminal groups to persuade the population and try to involve them into their illegal activities. On the other hand, because of the increase in the controls by the authorities in Colombia, the criminal groups may modify some of their supply strategies for the chemical substances and start employing what we call self sufficiency strategies as the climate steam production of control chemicals, using controlled and non controlled precursors. And finally, groups are also concentrating their efforts to control and to maintain the strategic points and routes to kick trafficking. So this may increase the scenarios of violence and the territorial disputes in a specific production regions and Colombia, specifically near to the borders with the new countries. There is a limitation on the information, but from Colombia, we remain committed to studying all the factors that can affect the dynamics of the drug production and the trafficking. We suspect that with the results of the 2020 crops monitoring report that will be released in maybe two months, we will be able to give some additional responses to this phenomenon, and maybe to support some of the hypotheses that remains about the impact of the community in the stock market, specifically the cocaine market in Colombia.

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