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For a long time, drugs have hidden a complex story of power politics. Over two centuries, drugs have been used as a political instrument, from colonial powers encouraging the use of opium at the turn of the 19th Century, to the mafia drug cartels in South America. Although the consequences of COVID-19 have been widely explored in numerous fields, the impact of the pandemic on drug trafficking has often been overlooked.
How is COVID-19 changing drug trafficking, and how are governments across the world adapting to such changes?
The pandemic is having important consequences in the field and is increasing the vulnerability of individuals to harmful coping mechanisms. There has been an 18% increase in overdoses in the United States of America as compared to 2019 and 40 states have seen increases in opioid related mortality (American Psychological Association, 2021). Opioids represent the cause of 69% of deaths related to drug use disorders (Kenny, 2021).
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2021) claims that the restrictions due to lockdown will obstruct the sale and production of opiates in major producing countries. Even though, according to the UNODC research on COVID-19 and the drug supply chain, the pandemic will not stop traffickers, they will end up adapting to new smuggling techniques in new conditions. This has already been observed as a result of an increase in maritime travel. For example, the reduction in air traffic to Europe resulting from the COVID -19 measures are believed to have caused a rise in cocaine shipments by sea cargo from South America to Europe. Governments across the globe should seize this opportunity and formulate new policies to reduce illicit drug flows, in particular- the current opioid epidemic. The government of British Columbia has already introduced new rules which allow doctors to prescribe controlled doses of substitute drugs. The United Kingdom is also considering similar new rules, but there are downsides and debate is ongoing around whether it would really be helpful or not. Pharmacists may still need training and guidance over prescribing opiate-substitution medication, such as methadone.
Also, there is the possibility that because it has become harder to smuggle drugs as a result of lockdown and travelling restrictions, actors in the drug supply chain may hoard drugs. As a result, prices will decrease since supply is high, leading to a possible increase in drug overdoses when the restrictions are lifted. At the same time, there is evidence, according to the UNODC (2021) research report, that COVID-19 is not reducing cannabis trafficking from North America, rather, its demand is rising. Drug users are also adapting to new difficulties in drug purchasing. For example, online drug sales through darknet markets and at home delivery are becoming more and more popular (EMCDDA, 2020).
The changes in regulation are impacting the drug trafficking routes in numerous ways. With half of the global population being placed under COVID-19 control restrictions, legitimate trade flows are decreasing and movement of illicit goods is also detrimentally impacted. Afghanistan, currently the supplier of 90% of the world’s opium, has closed its borders with Iran and Pakistan. Previously, drug traffickers used legal trade to camouflage the transportation of drugs, which is now increasingly more difficult with the decrease in global trade of goods and services.
According to the Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment (UNODC, 2010), 380 tons of heroin produced from Afghan poppies is exported globally every year. Pre-COVID-19, the Southern, the Northern and the Balkan route were all widely used. Due to the pandemic, heroin trafficking from Afghanistan will now reach Europe predominantly through the Southern route because maritime transportation presents less risks compared to land transportation, due to increased border control.
Windward, a Israeli Maritime Intelligence and predictive analytics company, in collaboration with seven EU member states, has started using artificial intelligence to find vessels that are potentially carrying shipments of drugs in Europe (Berti, 2020). The Maritime Artificial Intelligence Analytics (MAIA) platform relies on data collected from 300 behavioural analytics models and over 10 billion data points collected over 8 years to provide recommendations. The platform helps identify the vessels that could potentially be carrying illegal drugs and should be investigated.
Other issues for drug traffickers include the labour in the production of opium poppies. Opium needs to be collected and harvested by seasonal workers when the poppies are mature. The morphine then needs to be extracted from the opium poppies, before being transformed into heroin, using specific chemicals. The spread of COVID-19 may reduce the number of workers available for the collection of opium gums. Seasonal workers are often travelling from various regions in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries. However, with the new restrictions and the borders closed, it is very hard for them to travel from Pakistan and Iran.
Increased border controls may also cause shortage of chemicals making production more complex for the laboratories, according to the UNODC (2021) research report. As a result, other synthetic drugs will be produced and criminal organizations will replace their source of income with other criminal activities, such as cybercrime or illegal activities.
At the same time, because governments are focusing on tackling the pandemic, they may lessen their efforts to reduce and intercept illegal drug trafficking. For instance, the UNODC research report claims that criminal organizations are exploiting the current situation to gain the support of citizens of countries such as Venezuela and Brazil. In such countries, organized crime groups are providing essential goods to citizens in order to strengthen their ties with the local communities and enhance their image (Gomis, 2020). This has been done in particular with the vulnerable people who have been the most affected by COVID-19. Therefore, there is the risk that they may turn to illegal activities which have arisen due to the crisis, to compensate for the loss of income and unemployment.
There needs to be a quick response from the international community to combat the new strategies implemented by criminal organizations. For instance, governments should aim at helping people who have lost their jobs and are in a vulnerable situation. This could be done through training programmes, providing the required skills to find another job, and through awareness raising campaigns. Moreover, there is a need for long-term drug prevention programmes to balance the possible increase in drug consumption due to the stress and precarity generated by COVID-19.
What is certain is that the crisis is changing the government’s perspectives on drug policy. Countries may need to shift to a regulatory model based on overall health conditions, rather than relying on strict enforcement measures. Just like the pandemic, the global nature of drug trafficking makes it an international challenge. It is still unclear if the lockdown measure will make it harder to trade drugs. If the priority is the economic and health crisis, the resources will focus on supporting the economic recovery and strengthening the health systems rather than fighting drug trafficking, eventually making it easier for criminals to produce and distribute their commodity.
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Von der Brelie, H. (2021) “Has the illegal drug trade outsmarted a pandemic?”. Euronews https://www.euronews.com/2021/01/15/has-the-illegal-drug-trade-outsmarted-a-pandemic
By Camilla Mina
Camilla is a first-year student is Bsc. Social Sciences at University College London. She is passionate about current issues and writing, with a focus on the Middle East and international relations.