COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use

The COVID-19 crisis is taking its toll on the global economy, public health and our way of life. The virus has now infected more than 3.6 million people worldwide, killed 250,000 and led Governments to take drastic measures to limit the spread of coronavirus disease 2019. Roughly half of the global population is living under mobility restrictions, international border crossings have been closed and economic activity has declined drastically, as many countries have opted for the closure of nonessential businesses. Drug trafficking relies heavily on legal trade to camouflage its activities and on individuals being able to distribute drugs to consumers. The measures implemented by Governments to counter the COVID- 19 pandemic have thus inevitably affected all aspects of the illegal drug markets, from the production and trafficking of drugs to their consumption. Having said that, the impact of those measures varies both in terms of the different business models used in the distribution of each type of drug and the approaches used by different countries to address the pandemic. These range from the closure of international border crossings, while allowing domestic travel, to moderate-to-strict shelter-in-place orders, or a complete lockdown of all activities, including suspension of essential services other than for emergencies. The impact on actual drug production may vary greatly depending on the substance and the geographical location of its production. Based on the most recent data from government authorities, open sources, including the media, and the network of UNODC field offices, the evidence available suggests the following ongoing dynamics in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the illicit drug markets.

Measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are having a mixed impact on the drug supply chain

The impact of the measures implemented to address the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have been most homogenous to date at the very end of the drug supply chain, in the destination markets. Many countries across all regions have reported an overall shortage of numerous types of drugs at the retail level, as well as increases in prices, reductions in purity and that drug users have consequently been switching substance (for example, from heroin to synthetic opioids) and/or increasingly accessing drug treatment. Some countries in the Balkans and in the Middle East, where measures are not so strict during the day, have, however, reported less disruption. The overall impact on bulk supply is reportedly more heterogenous, both across drugs and across countries. Increased controls resulting from the implementation of measures to fight the spread of COVID-19 have had double-edged consequences on large-scale drug supply. Some countries, such as Italy and countries in Central Asia, have experienced a sharp decrease in drug seizures. Other countries, such as Niger, have reported a cease in drug trafficking.
There have also been reports of organized criminal groups involved in drug trafficking becoming distracted from their usual illicit activities by emerging crime linked to the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, cybercrime and trafficking in falsified medicines in the Balkan countries. On the other hand, other countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and Morocco, have reported large drug seizures, indicating that large-scale drug trafficking is still taking place, and some have reported an increase in interdiction resulting from increased controls.
An example of an increase in drug enforcement is seen in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where an improvement in the interdiction of “county lines” activities, a trafficking modus operandi particular to that country in which young disadvantaged people are exploited, has been reported. “Fortuitous” drug interceptions in countries such as Egypt have also resulted in mid-scale drug seizures made during street controls, and reports from Nigeria indicate continued drug trafficking, with a possible increase in the use of postal services.

Drug production

Restrictions resulting from the lockdown could hinder the production and sale of opiates in major producing countries

With the key months for the opium harvest in Afghanistan being March to June, the 2020 opium harvest is taking place during the COVID-19 crisis and it could be affected if the large labour force needed is not able or willing to travel to the areas where opium poppy is grown in the country. This may be due to mobility restrictions imposed by the Government or non-state actors, or by the spread of the COVID-19 virus itself, which may deter workers from travelling or reduce the workforce available due to sickness. A shortage of poppy lancers has already been observed in the western and southern provinces of the country, mainly due to the closure of a border crossing with Pakistan. However, women in poppy-growing households appear to be increasingly engaged in the poppy lancing process, as do people who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The decline in international trade resulting from the pandemic could also lead to a shortage in the supply of acetic anhydride, a precursor vital to the manufacture of heroin, which is not produced in Afghanistan. Such a shortage could lead to a reduction in the manufacturing of heroin or push it outside the country or even the region. In Myanmar, there are indications that the 2020 opium harvest, which was concluded before the onset of the pandemic, faces a shortage of buyers possibly because of the related restrictions of movement. There are no indications to date of measures to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus having an impact on opium production in Mexico.

Measures are impeding cocaine production in the short-term but a resurgence is likely in the event of economic crisis

Reports from Colombia indicate that law enforcement pressure has increased during the pandemic and that the coca bush eradication campaign is continuing as planned. Cocaine production appears to be being impeded, as producers, especially in eastern Colombia, are suffering from a shortage of gasoline, which was previously smuggled from the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela and is essential in cocaine production.
In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, political turbulence in late 2019 and the recent challenges related to the spread of COVID-19 appear to be limiting the ability of state authorities to control coca bush cultivation, which could lead to an increase in its cultivation. In Peru, a drop in the price of cocaine is indicative of a reduction in trafficking opportunities and may discourage coca bush cultivation in the short-term, although the looming economic crisis may lead more farmers to increase or take up coca cultivation in all the major cocaine-producing countries.

Reduced trade is limiting the availability of precursors for synthetic drugs in some Regions

Synthetic drugs can be produced in virtually every country. The COVID-19 measures could have an effect on synthetic drug production if they lead to a reduction in the availability of precursor substances that are either diverted from the legal trade or produced illicitly. Where precursor chemicals are supplied from within a region and trafficking has not been impeded (for example, in South-East Asia), the production of synthetic drugs is only marginally affected by the restrictions stemming from the measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Also, where there is domestic manufacture using domestic precursors, as is the case of mephedrone and other popular synthetic drugs in the Russian Federation, no major impact on the domestic drug market is visible.

The largescale illicit production of synthetic drugs using precursors imported from other regions is more likely to be affected. Indeed, there are reports that the reduction in trade from South-East Asia has limited the supply of chemical precursors in Mexico, where it seems to have disrupted the manufacture of methamphetamine and fentanyl, as well as in Lebanon and Syria, where it is affecting the manufacture of amphetamine-type stimulants, in particular of “captagon”. In Czechia, the closing of the international borders has led to a reduction in the availability of precursors and a shortage of methamphetamine is expected.

Drug trafficking

Drug trafficking by air is likely to be completely disrupted by the restrictions imposed on air travel

The trafficking of different drugs has been impacted to varying extents by the restrictions in movement and closure of borders imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, depending on how drugs were trafficked before the pandemic. Heroin is mostly trafficked by land, often alongside legal cargo, whereas cocaine is mostly trafficked by sea, also using non-commercial craft such as specialised boats and yachts. Synthetic drugs tend to be trafficked by air, with certain substances reaching some countries in large proportions, which is carried out by air couriers using body packs or concealing drugs in their personal luggage.

The biggest impact on drug trafficking can thus be expected in countries where large proportions of drugs are trafficked by air. Given the almost universal restrictions imposed on air traffic, the supply of drugs by air may be completely disrupted. This is likely to have a particularly drastic effect on the trafficking of synthetic drugs, not least methamphetamine, to countries in South-East Asia, such as the Republic of Korea and Japan, and in Oceania, such as Australia, as well as on the cocaine trafficking that relied on commercial flights prior to the pandemic.

Signs of increased use of maritime routes to traffic heroin to Europe

Reports from the main heroin trafficking routes indicate that the COVID-19 measures may have increased the risk of interception when the drug is trafficked by land as such shipments may now be intercepted more frequently than those trafficked by other modes of transport. Recent significant seizures of opiates in the Islamic Republic of Iran have been attributed to those measures. CARICC, the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for Combating Illicit Trafficking of Narcotic Drugs, estimates that heroin trafficking overland may have become riskier in Central Asia. A recent uptick in heroin seizures in the Indian Ocean could be interpreted as indication of an increase in the use of maritime routes for trafficking heroin to Europe along the “southern route”. If confirmed, the shift to the southern route would indicate a change in the strategy of drug trafficking organizations as a result of the COVID-19 measures.

Border measures appear to be hindering trafficking in opiates

Reports from the Americas point to increased control at borders that is making the trafficking of heroin from Mexico to the United States of America more difficult than before the onset of the pandemic. Similar reports have come from Myanmar, which supplies East and South-East Asia with heroin: a sudden drop in opium prices suggests that buyers are no longer able to reach producing areas in order to purchase opium or heroin. This situation could, however, also be linked to major ongoing counternarcotics operations.

Large shipments of cocaine are still being trafficked but by alternative means
There are indications that the reduction in air traffic to Europe resulting from the COVID-19 measures may already have led to an increase in direct cocaine shipments by sea cargo from South America to Europe. Similarly, reports from Colombia indicate an increase in maritime drug trafficking and a decrease in cocaine trafficking by land. Relatively recent large seizures of cocaine made in European ports demonstrate that the trafficking of large shipments of cocaine is still ongoing.

Indications of a reduction in the flow of cocaine is not yet affecting seizures in destination markets

Cocaine continues to be seized in large quantities in Europe and in Latin America, which not only indicates that drug trafficking is ongoing but also that law enforcement is continuing to intercept such shipments. There are, however, indications of a reduction in the flow of cocaine from source countries to destination countries. In Peru, falling cocaine prices and difficulties in trafficking cocaine abroad have been reported, which could lead to an overall reduction in cocaine trafficking in the near future.

COVID-19 measures are likely to lead to the stockpiling of drugs

It is likely that, as a reaction to a reduction in opportunities for drug traffickers to distribute drugs in local markets owing to the lockdown, actors along the drug supply chains are stockpiling drugs. The decrease in prices reported by mostly drug-producing countries may be an indicator of such a development. Increasing stockpiles may lead to an oversupply of drugs once restrictions are lifted, which could result in an increase in the availability of low-cost, high-purity drugs and could lead to an increase in the risk of drug overdoses.

Indications the lockdown is increasing demand for cannabis

Continued large-scale seizures of cannabis products in the Middle East and North Africa suggest that cannabis resin trafficking to Europe is not being disrupted by the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are indications that the lockdown measures in Europe may lead to an increase in demand for cannabis products, which could intensify drug trafficking activities from North Africa to Europe in the future.

Local nature of cannabis implies trafficking will remain unaffected
In general, trafficking in cannabis may not be affected in the same way as trafficking in heroin or cocaine, given that cannabis production often takes place near consumer markets and traffickers are thus less reliant on long, transregional shipments of large quantities of the drug.

Enforcement of COVID-19 measures may play into the hands of drug traffickers
The response of Member States to countering drug trafficking may also, to some degree, be affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In countries with limited law enforcement capacity, enforcing measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 may divert resources away from counter-narcotics efforts, making drug trafficking and production less risky for organized criminal groups and providing a conducive environment for illicit activities. Moreover, there are indications that drug trafficking groups are adapting their strategies in order to continue their operations, and that some have started to exploit the situation so as to enhance their image among the population by providing services, in particular to the vulnerable.

Drug consumption

Drug shortages have been reported and could have negative health consequences for people with drug use disorders

Many countries have reported drug shortages at the retail level, with reports of heroin shortages in Europe, South-West Asia and North America in particular. Drug supply shortages can go together with an overall decrease in consumption (for example, of drugs that are mostly consumed in recreational setting such as bars and clubs) but may also, especially in the case of heroin, lead to the consumption of harmful domestically-produced substances, as well as more harmful patterns of drug use by people with drug use disorders. In terms of alternatives, some countries in Europe have warned that heroin users may switch to substances such as fentanyl and its derivatives.

An increase in the use of pharmaceutical products such as benzodiazepines and buprenorphine has also been reported, to the extent that their price has doubled in some areas. Harmful patterns deriving from drug shortages include an increase in injecting drug use and the sharing of injecting equipment and other drug paraphernalia, all of which carry the risk of spreading blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, and COVID-19 itself. Risks resulting from drug overdose may also increase among people who inject drugs and who are infected with COVID-19. Some countries have reported that the activities of organizations providing support to people who use drugs have been severely affected.
In response to a reduction in the accessibility of treatment service provision during the lockdown, some countries have increased low-threshold services and reduced barriers for obtaining opiate-substitution medication; for example, allowing pharmacies to dispense methadone, as in the United Kingdom. Other countries, however, have reported difficulties in maintaining services for drug users.

Economic difficulties caused by COVID-19 could change drug consumption for the Worse

In the long run, the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to lead to a lasting transformation of the drug markets. The economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 crisis may affect people who are already in a position of socioeconomic disadvantage harder than others. This could lead to an increase in the number of people resorting to illicit activities linked to drugs in order to make a living (production, transport, etc.) and/or being recruited into drug trafficking organizations. Based on the experiences of the economic crisis of 2008, it is fair to assume that the economic downturn may lead to reductions in drug-related budgets among Member States, an overall increase in drug use, with a shift towards cheaper drugs, and a shift in patterns of use towards injecting drugs and to substances with an increased risk of harm due to a greater frequency of injections.

Mitigating the potentially harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on drug markets and on the ability of countries to control drug production, trafficking and use requires adaptive and quick responses by the international community. In the short term, drug market disruptions may lead to an increase in harmful drug use practices and to novel strategies by drug trafficking groups aiming to overcome obstacles. People who use drugs may increasingly access the darknet in order to overcome the effects of street control and drug delivery by mail could become more popular. The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis could, in the medium-term, lead to further increases in drug production, trafficking and use.

The crisis may have a transformative effect on drug markets and may exacerbate the socioeconomic situation of vulnerable groups who in turn may increasingly resort to illicit activities. Indeed, an increasing number of people may resort to illicit activities to compensate for the loss of licit income and unemployment. Once restrictions are lifted, economic shocks may also prompt an increase in drug consumption, as observed in the past.

In parallel, the economic crisis will limit the capacity of Member States to curb drug production and mitigate harms resulting from drug consumption, if fewer funds are available for counter-narcotic programmes and alternative development, as well as for drug treatment and prevention programmes. Tackling drug trafficking remains an international responsibility. Most of the demand for trafficked substances comes from countries other than those where drugs are produced and most drug-related income is generated in destination countries. As such, tackling drug trafficking remains a shared responsibility that requires a concerted international effort targeting the new challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which are affecting countries of supply, transit and destination.

The evidence collected so far suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it, are affecting the drug supply chain, from production and trafficking to consumption, to varying degrees. Close monitoring of the supply chain and of drug use patterns and their consequences is paramount in order to assess whether the observed changes are only temporary or if drug markets will undergo a lasting transformation. Close monitoring is also required to close gaps in the understanding of the dynamics of drug markets, in particular in Africa, where information on drug trafficking and drug consumption remains scarce.

Further information is also needed to improve understanding of how the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on drug production and drug trafficking may be affecting terrorist organizations, which benefit financially from facilitating trafficking in drugs and other illicit materials.

Research brief prepared by the Research and Trend Analysis Branch and the UNODC Research Network