Overall, there were two separate effects of the pandemic on drug markets. Firstly, the lockdown and global disruption to the economy affected availability of some drugs to some users. Second, the pandemic meant that where people bought and sold, and how they used drugs, changed due to more at-home use and limited access to health services. While there is an uneven pattern and we cannot speak of an overall single set of effects, existing inequalities deepened. Vulnerable people experienced difficulties regarding support, income and buying processes while those who were better off were able to manage and cope with the pandemic much more effectively.
Illicit Moral Economy
Where people have fewer resources to fall back on, they are more vulnerable to victimisation. The market changes due to COVID re-emphasise existing inequalities, much as they do in the licit economy. People who sell drugs who operate from a house or other space they control, who have a stable internet connection, their own fixed phone line or access to darknet markets and other online sources, are doing quite well, though they are under pressure. Those who are already the least powerful in the drug market are finding it hard, particularly those who are also selling, or who are considering starting to sell drugs as other resources dry up. At the same time competition between people who sell drugs is increasing.
Market power and vulnerabilities
Some people’s access to GPs, pharmacies and support services was disrupted due to pandemic control measures. While some were relying on the internet and telephone for support related to their drug use, others lost contact with support services all together due to their lack of access to the internet and telephones. This mandatory switch to virtual forms of contact and support might intensify existing class-based inequalities, and put the most vulnerable people in a more precarious position.
Drug Consumption Patterns
There was a decrease in MDMA use. It is assumed that the relative stability of MDMA prices and the decrease in consumption is related to MDMA’s general use as a party drug. As large scale social gatherings have ceased and entertainment venues closed, MDMA seems to have lost its appeal for many people. On the other hand there has been an increase in benzodiazepine and changes in the use of alcohol.
Pricing and quality
Overall the impact of the lockdown and disruption to global trade did not lead to the expected across the board increase in drug prices and drop in quality. Some users experienced lower quality and lower choice and variety however dealers mostly did not use the situation to increase prices. Some faced challenges as their user base had been reduced due to lower consumption and lockdown restrictions. Sometimes they avoided raising prices by reducing the potency of the drugs they sold. That may also reflect more limited buying power on the part of people who use drugs. Some reported higher prices around cocaine, crack and benzos. Some people who sell drugs expanded their use of credit in order to maintain a buyer base and that may also have smoothed out the immediate impact of price rises.
Some participants felt that the strength of benzodiazepines had increased and gave better “value for money”. However, other participants had become wary of buying and using benzodiazepines because the quality varied so hugely. One participant knew of three people who had overdosed on street valium in the previous 2 weeks
Generally the perception was that the quality of heroin and crack had diminished since Covid restrictions. Three participants expressed concern that additives to crack were causing wheezing and breathing difficulties, as well as chest pain. Participants who used heroin were unanimous in reporting that the drug was far “weaker” and had “lesser effect”, but there were differences of opinion over whether the downturn in quality had been since the pandemic measures or if it had been that way for some time.
Buying process and transactions
In understanding risk and vulnerability, one factor to examine is how the buying process might have changed throughout the pandemic. Some interviewees expressed that due to the change in use and supply of substances, they had to buy from dealers and places that they were unfamiliar with. This unfamiliarity and change in source caused stress as interviewees did not have an experience or understanding of the substances’ quality and price. Having to venture outside their usual trusted sources put people who use drugs in a riskier position in the market, both from a financial and a health-related standpoint.