This scene was not limited to the Netherlands, which legalized the individual use of cannabis since 1976, as several countries witnessed a demand for drugs, after users estimated that the closure measures would affect the supply chains of narcotic substances and their ability to obtain them.
This is what actually happened, as the Corona pandemic disrupted the illegal drug trade in ways not seen since World War II. This affected nearly every country and many different types of drugs, according to a United Nations report.
Lack of quantities and degree of purity
According to the report, prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the impact of the Corona pandemic on drug supplies is not yet fully known. However, the restrictions imposed on borders and other restrictions associated with the pandemic, have already led to a shortage of narcotic substances, and consequently to a decrease in the purity of drugs and to an increase in their prices.
In France, for example, the drug trade has declined by between 30 and 40%, according to the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner. This, in turn, led to a price jump of between 30 and 60%, according to Stephanie Sherbounier, the official in the French Drug Control Administration.
As for the reasons, the researcher at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Angela Mai, confirms that small-scale disturbances are common in the drug trade, but the chaos witnessed in recent months is almost unprecedented, due to several factors related to employment, transportation and others.
The harvest season for poppy fields in Afghanistan, the world’s largest supplier of heroin, has seen a sudden shortage of field workers. According to the United Nations report, the harvest usually includes more than a hundred thousand people, but due to the closure of Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan last March, it is no longer possible to provide these numbers.
In Colombia, too, cocaine production has been hit by a shortage of gasoline. Meanwhile, the production of synthetic drugs in Mexico has slowed due to a lack of primary chemicals needed to produce heroin and methamphetamine from Southeast Asia, as a result of the closure of borders.
Adaptation in production and promotion
Another factor that can be mentioned here is the difficulty in getting paid for selling drugs. “There is a noticeable increase in the police presence linked to stay-at-home orders, and coupled with the closure of the borders, it made transporting drugs north and money south more difficult,” says Utham Dillon, acting director of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
But illicit trade experts assert that drug traffickers have an advantage over others, as they are accustomed to discovering ways to smuggle their goods, and the distortions that can occur to supply chains resulting from law enforcement.
On this basis, the lockdown measures and all the obstacles imposed by the pandemic have not prevented drug traffickers from trying to adapt to the new situation and keep supply chains running.
The UN report notes an increase in the number of local women working in the poppy fields in Afghanistan, replacing workers who cannot travel due to the lockdown measures.
The most prominent transformation was in the work of the major drug cartels, as their work shifted from air and land transportation to shipping by sea to bring products from Mexico to the United States. They have preempted the lockdown by attempting to dump Europe with drugs, hoping to preserve the cocaine market, which is worth more than $ 10 billion.
According to Bob van den Berg, law enforcement official at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “based on the seizure of more cocaine shipments than usual, it can be said that Europe was flooded with cocaine before the general lockdown measures.”
Van den Berg notes that during the first three months of this year, 17.5 tons of cocaine were seized in South American ports, especially in Brazil, destined for Europe, noting that this represents an increase of about 20% compared to the same period in 2019.
Last April, the Belgian authorities also seized about 5 tons of cocaine in a container that came from Latin America in the port of Antwerp, which was the main point of cocaine entry into Europe last year, as more than 60 tons were intercepted.
On April 16, British customs officials seized 14 kilograms of cocaine, valued at about one million pounds, that had been hidden in a shipment of masks inside the English Channel Tunnel customs area.
“Delifry” and “Drenz”
Delivery methods have also seen attempts to adapt to the new situation. Last April, the International Police Organization, INTERPOL, issued a “purple notice” to warn its 194 member agencies about a new modus operandi that relied on delivery workers using bicycles, motorcycles or cars.
In its warning, the organization said that drug traffickers use food delivery services as a cover for transporting drugs and other illegal goods during the Coronavirus crisis.
In Spain, seven people posing as delivery workers were arrested in Alicante and Valencia, after drugs were found in hidden pockets of backpacking bags for food delivery. In Ireland, police found eight kilograms of cocaine and two guns hidden in pizza boxes.
Alongside these methods, the use of drones has witnessed a significant activity. Traders in a number of countries used these aircraft to transport drug shipments, specifically on the border between Mexico and the United States, according to a United Nations report.
Internet commerce has also boomed during the coronavirus crisis. Some statistics indicate a major shift from street-level to digital.
According to research prepared by the British newspaper The Independent, sales of the drug trade on the Internet increased by 495% in the first months of the epidemic, and advertisements for the cannabis plant increased by 555%. The largest increase was in cocaine lists, which rose by 1,000%, between December and April.
Fear of “overdoses”
But the ability of drug traffickers to adapt to the lockdown measures imposed by the Coronavirus is not in itself the only risk factor, as many international reports have warned of long-term effects.
According to a United Nations report, the disruption of drug smuggling may lead to drug storage. This, according to the report, could lead to an increase in supply once restrictions are eased, and could flood the markets with cheap and very pure drugs, which could lead to an increase in overdoses by users.
The report adds that the economic hardships resulting from the spread of the Coronavirus may also lead to additional burdens on the poor, which may ultimately push them to engage in the drug trade in search of a material resource.
Drug traffickers are also taking advantage of the repercussions of the Coronavirus to boost their social standing, by providing assistance to locals. “There are indications that drug trafficking groups are adapting their strategies in order to continue their operations, and that some have begun to exploit the situation to improve their image among the population by providing services, especially to vulnerable groups,” says the United Nations report.
The Financial Times notes another aspect related to the lasting impact of the crisis on the drug trade in terms of developing new methods and partnerships, in addition to the potential rise of organizations that better exploit the crisis.
And it is something that Vanda Philpab Brown, an expert on illegal trade at the Brookings Institution, expects to lead to a push toward automated transportation, just as it does for legal businesses. “Likewise, we will get to a time when drug dealers deliver your daily orders. Weekly or monthly via a drone to the window sill.
In conclusion, it is worth noting what experts in drug trafficking and use disorders say, in the sense that when drugs are more difficult to find or more expensive, more addictive sufferers seek treatment. However, this poses a complex problem in light of the difficulty of accessing medical care in clinics and hospitals, in addition to the situation that the health sectors suffer as a result of the outbreak of the virus.
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