Home » Side Event: The impacts of COVID19 on young people’s drug use

Side Event: The impacts of COVID19 on young people’s drug use

Organized by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy with the support of Youth RISE

Since the beginning of 2020, the world has been experiencing an unprecedented public health emergency, which has led to a dramatic shift in how young people live. The pandemic bore major consequences on how young people are experiencing their everyday and their recreation time: restrictions of movement, the closure of public places, universities and workplaces moving online had wide ranging effects on physical and emotional environments, as well as on substance use. In this session, young people will discuss their experiences during the pandemic & present their research about the changing realities of young people who work with PWUD and of YPWUD.

Hello everyone and welcome to our side event. We are glad to see such strong support for the youth here today. My name is Róisín Downes and I am the Executive Director of SSDP International and I will be your host today. This event is co-hosted by Youth RISE, which is a youth led organisation that mobilizes youth to be engaged in full spectrum harm reduction and drug policy reform to promote health and human rights.

Over the last year the world has faced serious challenges as a result of the pandemic. During this time youth have faced very specific emotional and physical challenges such as schools and universities moving online, housing and financial instability, and movement restrictions. Our speakers are all young people from youth led organisations, I’d like to stress that these young people not only hold key community knowledge and insights on youth, but also have conducted essential research into youth drug use and markets, alongside providing crucial youth-accessible services. So often do our governments craft drug policies in the name of protecting the youth, and if policies are to be made in our name, our voices are to be heard. We thank you for giving us your time and attention today, and we call on everyone watching to get familiar with our organisations and ensure young people and youth led organisations are meaningfully involved in all drug related policies and initiatives going forward.

But first, let’s meet our speakers:

MJ Stowe is the Programme Coordinator at the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs (SANPUD) and a Researcher in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is also an International Working Group Member at YouthRISE.

Ailish Brennan is a youth activist and is the current Executive Director of Youth RISE. She has a bachelor’s degree in politics, international relations and economics from University College Dublin. Ailish has been involved in harm reduction and drug policy advocacy since 2017. She has a particular interest in campaigning against homelessness and issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, in particular how these intersect with drug use and her drug policy work with Youth RISE

Carolina Ahumada is a sociologist from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the coordinator of PAF! Proyecto de Atención en Fiestas, a harm reduction programme in festive scenarios from the organisation Intercambios Civil Association. She is also the Latin America and the Caribbean Communications Officer from Youth RISE. She will be presenting a study made by Intercambios in 2020 about the consumption of psychoactive substances by young people during the pandemic in Buenos Aires.

Dasha Anderson is the former chair of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK and of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Durham. She is a vocal campaigner for drug policy reform at the local, national and international levels and has worked to promote harm reduction-focused policies and initiatives at universities across the UK. She has volunteered with a range of harm reduction and drug research organisations.

Eleri Crossland

Eleri Crossland is a Masters of Visual Culture student at Durham University, where she is also President of the university‘s SSDP chapter. Also, she is the co-chair of SSDP UK‘s University Drug Policy committee, Eleri has spent this academic year campaigning to introduce drug testing kits in Durham, representing SSDP UK as a panellist on several webinars and writing up articles on student drug use during the pandemic

Eleri and Dasha will be starting us off with their presentation on how youth drug use in the UK was influenced by the pandemic. 

Dasha Anderson and Eleri Crossland, SSDP UK: Ran a survey on student drugs use in UK national lockdown. Ran a few surveys and focus groups in collab with other student orgs. Reached 1080 students around the UK. First lockdown – increased in depressant drugs – which was concerning – risks of overdose. But we found that there was a rebound in party drugs.

You may expect the lockdown would make drugs hard to find, but we found 78% of students agreed that they found drugs easy to obtain. Advantages to buying drugs online – less risky, easier to found. Relevant for students who are tech-savvy. Also looked at mental health with the Kessler scale. Average K6 score was 11.4 -lower for males than females. Only 24% currently receive or will seek out support. Strong link to drug use and mental health comorbidities – the most common reasons for substance use were coping with boredom and sleep. Recreational drug use used to be higher – shifted in pandemic to be more related to boredom. As restrictions lift, we expect drug use will increase even further. 20% of students reported receiving safety information concerning illegal drugs – not good enough.

What SSDP Durham has been doing to help. We’ve attempted to remain active despite the pandemic. We’ve been to local bars prior to the pandemic, distributing harm reduction information. We’ve seen an increase in SSDP chapters across the UK – want to ensure access to all students to essential harm reduction services.

We aim to provide safety tips to regular and first time people who use drugs – wiping down baggies and not sharing straws – info distributed through harm reduction packs in freshers week. We’ve also been raising funds for drug safety testing as a harm reduction strategy. If someone knows their drug will contain a mis-sold substance, they will be less likely to use it. We believe it is vital to provide this service for students. We were also on NUS panel. Have taken part in a lot of international campaigns and webinars, and hosted harm reduction workshops with partners.

Now we will talk about what governments should do – invest in effective drug education. Providing accurate messaging that is not over exaggerated. These messages make people distrust the government if scaremongering. Showed Norwegian campaign.

Governments should support drug testing initiatives in festivals, clubs and city centres. In the UK we have The Loop. Drug testing is part of wider harm reduction intervention. 1/5 of people who use this service dispose of drugs instead of using them.

Governments need to support young people’s mental health and alcohol and other drug services. More funding is needed for this, and these services should be informed by young people.

The most important thing governments could do is decriminalise drugs for personal use. People with drug convictions experience stigma that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. We know this disproportionately affects people with ethnic backgrounds. Prohibitionist polices can result in young people not accessing services. Polices of criminalisation were made for us, not with us

Thank you so much for the incredible insights about the UK, next I will handover to Ailish who will tell us about what YouthRISE has done in response to the pandemic.

Thank you Róisín and thank you everyone for joining today. As Róisín mentioned I am Ailish and I am the Executive Director of Youth RISE. We are a network comprised-of and led-by young people working in drug policy advocacy and harm reduction around the world. When the pandemic hit last year obviously all of our lives were thrown upside down a bit. However, the lives of the community of young people who use drugs that we represent and work with were especially impacted, as you’ll see by some of the research presented here.

Being an international organization and working remotely, Youth RISE, in an organizational sense was, in many ways, well equipped to the changes that were brought about by the pandemic. Most of our work was done online anyway or could be easily transferred to a digital setting. However, the same could not be said for organizations working on a much more local level, the organizations that we work with to complete our projects and who our International Working Group members are working as a part of day in and day out.

Thankfully, we were able to work with some of these organizations to bridge the gap that had widened as a result of the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, young key populations and in particular young people who use drugs were among the most adversely affected. Many services working with the community closed, many people lost what little income they had access to, and could no longer access healthcare or other basic supports.


In Argentina, we worked with Intercambios Asociación Civil and their PAF! Programme focusing on nightlife harm reduction. We supported two types of interventions, one “on site” intervention to engage young people where they are congregating and using drugs outside to educate them about harm reduction as well as the impacts of Covid, gender and consent. As Covid has impacted the lives of young people it has also impacted how and where they are using drugs in Buenos Aires. This change in drug use patterns has presented new issues, not least of all the potential spread of Covid.

The second intervention was carried out by going around bars to discuss the same issues as well as encouraging social distancing. Both interventions also used harm reduction materials and PPE equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizers which were also distributed to the young people who engaged in the intervention.


In Pakistan, we were happy to work with Ujala Welfare Organization, a relatively new organization and a network of people who use drugs, to provide training, Covid relief for young people who use drugs, and even a workshop for journalists in the region where they discussed the National Drug Policy created in 2019 with the aim to improve the reporting and public understanding of young people who use drugs. The training aimed to educate the members of Ujala Welfare Organization on harm reduction, HIV prevention and peer education, ahead of the outreach work in the community.

This was the first training of any kind related to drug use or HIV prevention that many of the participants had attended. One attendee even said that he was afraid the government was using this to gather the names of people who use drugs in order to arrest them. Police operations against the community in the region were very common and many people felt they were taking a massive risk to simply come to a meeting to talk about basic harm reduction or HIV prevention practices.

Covid relief and outreach work was conducted in three rural villages which were identified for being particularly impacted by both drug use and Covid. It was difficult again to convince people that this was not some sort of Police operation as this was the first time any work like this has been done in such remote areas. Engaging the community in the workshop was tough as there are very low literacy levels, something which people living in the village say is as a direct result of the drug use happening there.

Many of the young people who use drugs in the villages were living and using drugs in a religious shrine as they have been shunned as a result of their drug use. The outreach work included a workshop to educate the community about harm reduction, and Covid as well as distributing relief packs. There were also a lot of misconceptions about Covid and many people wore face masks for the very first time at these workshops which took place in November.


Finally, in Nepal, we worked in collaboration with Seven Street to distribute Covid relief including food and sanitary equipment to young people who use drugs. It was identified that two clinics distributing Opioid Substitution Treatment and two locations inside slums in Kathmandu where the community of young people who use drugs usually congregate would be the locations for the relief distribution. In total 60 people received relief packs over a number of days and more significantly many people who use drugs came into contact with any organization working in harm reduction for the first time.

Youth RISE is not an aid or relief distribution organization, distributing these food, sanitary, and other relief packs to young people who use drugs was arguably the most important work we did last year. It was certainly some of the work with the most impact. However, this is not generally within the scope of our work and the fact remains that if it was not for organizations like us, these young people who use drugs would have gone completely under the radar and been forgotten about in the Covid response. This work is just the tip of the iceberg of the needs of these young people, and it is just the tip of the iceberg of the young people who are in need. There needs to be a more concerted effort to meet the needs of these most marginalized communities and to ensure that young people who use drugs are not being left even further behind

Carolina Ahumada, YouthRISE and Intercambios, Argentina

Will present a study we did last year. Fortunately in COVID, our health care system has not collapsed here. Now we are experiencing a second wave. Management of various focused on biomedical approach.

Youth, Drugs, Stigma – interaction between these aspects. Youth cannot take care of themselves in the pandemic. After surveys on social media we conducted, young people decreased their drug use (20-25), living in Buenos Aires and other major cities.

Before and during context of quarantine – awareness actions of recreational use of drugs. Ran a quantitative and qualitative study:

Almost 30000 followers. 2000 people participated. Second strategies – online self administered study. Eight thematic entities


results: Use of all drugs decreased due to closure of recreational activities, especially stimulants and psychedelic drugs. Most used drug in our study was marijuana. There was an increased use of alcohol and tobacco. YPWUD use drugs to relax and reduce signs of anxiety due to isolation. Drug prices rose in Argentina due to scarce supply. Most frequent care and harm reduction practices were planning, staying hydrated and having good meals before sessions. A remarkable aspect was that people when consuming would call a friend to tell them what they were doing.

Use of all drugs decreased due to closures – most used drug marijuana. Drug quality decreased among drugs available. Harm reduction advice included hydrating and eating properly. We’ve now increased number of posts in social media about harm reduction involving marijuana.

MJ Stowe, Youth RISE South Africa, SANPUD.

Insights into people who sell drugs (PWSD) in South Africa.

Globally COVID measures have disrupted drug trafficking routes, but we know little about how this has affectedly people who use and sell drugs. We need to do this research to inform harm reduction services.

Approach: Meaningful inclusion of people who use and sell drugs – fieldworkers comprised of 92 PWUD from several key populations: WWUD, MSM, SW, PLHIV, drug sellers, LGBTQI+. Fieldworkers trained – access drug sellers at different levels of the drug marker – of quantities (250mg to >100kg.)

We focused on heroin, meth, cocaine. We found 171 PSWD – primary selling heroin, meth and cocaine. 37 sold to other sellers. Median years of selling was five. Median amount of 100 grams of heroin sold a week. Other drugs – people who sold (PWS) cocaine had an average of 50 clients; PWS methamphetamine, median 50 clients who bought about half a gram at a time. 2/3 of lower-level sellers reported reductions in drug sales between August and Nov 2020. Greatest number of sellers who experiences decreased sales were PWUSH.

Insights: first dataset of PWSD in Sth Africa. Relatively short but provides baseline for future research. Established relationships with PWSD at different levels of the drug market.

Impacts of COVID and mitigation measures is not homogenous across the country or the world. Likely that the disruptions are only temporary. Important finding – PWUD and PWSD need to be involved in all stages of the study. Study has some limitations.

Thank you so much MJ, the work that has been done in South Africa really shows how young people and people who use drugs can be key actors in research regarding drug use and drug markets. I’d like to thank all our panelists for the work they have been doing during this difficult time. Really insightful  to hear everyone’s research.

Now, we’ll take some questions from the audience!

Q: […] closures of universities and schools in the pandemic?

Ailish: increase in drug use in lockdowns in a few places, and not seen in others. Differences in severity globally. Lost access to income and social supports. This can lead to people taking more/different drugs that could cause more harms – people should have access to services and opportunities to reduce the harm associated with their drug use.

Q: still using drugs, how can I lower my risk of COVID during this time?

Carolina: we’ve created informative materials for harm reduction in the pandemic – created stickers for your glass to make sure you don’t share glasses. We intervened in public spaces, so provide QR codes to listen to music to lower your risk of bad trips. Want interventions to stay in public space so everyone can use. We know pwoplw are still using drugs, so have expanded access to harm reduction.

Q: MJ, what’s the quality of heroin in Sth Africa, is there fentanyl?

MJ: no fentanyl seen yet – have access to some fentanyl strips. Also access to colourmetric testing, but haven’t seen fentanyl in system. Commonly see benzos and paracetamol adulterating supply. Most of heroin comes through Tanzania, but not seeing much adulteration

Q: pandemic related stress is resulting in people increasing alcohol and other drug use?

Carolina: most used drugs in Argentina was marijuana – but mostly used to relax and reduce anxiety of quarantine, as detailed in our study. Our HR program was to ask or be there with people to find out why they are using marijuana to reduce their anxieties – we ask what they are anxious about.

Q: told not to use alone, but told to physically distance – what should I do?

Ailish: we discussed this difficult question – drug use is a very social thing in a lot of settings. Not just as a means of enjoyment, but for safety. Maybe limit amount of people using drugs with. Not sharing straws, joints etc. try to maintain safety net and follow lockdown regulations as much as you can

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