In the third in its series of rapid ‘trendspotter’ studies, the EMCDDA explores the impact of COVID-19 on the drug situation and responses to it. Revisiting and reviewing findings from two studies in 2020 on the effects of the pandemic on drug use and services, the report identifies new trends and developments which may have implications for policy and practice.
The report explores the situation in the EU Member States from June 2020 to February 2021, particularly changes in drug markets, patterns of use, harms and drug services, both in the community and in prisons.
The EMCDDA’s trendspotter methodology examines emerging drug-related trends by rapidly collecting and triangulating data from a variety of sources to allow for timely assessments of topics of concern. Specifically, for this COVID-19 impact study, the methodology was adapted to suit online investigation, taking into account the national emergency restrictions on both the EMCDDA team and the study participants. The study was designed to be carried out in successive waves.
The new analysis draws on a range of sources, including: three online surveys, eight virtual facilitated groups, data and literature reviews.
- The drug market proved to be ‘remarkably resilient’ to disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the detection of synthetic drug production sites and levels of cannabis cultivation in European countries appearing relatively stable.
- There were few indications that the pandemic made much impact on Europe’s cocaine market, with large seizures of the drug continuing into 2021.
- At wholesale level, some changes in routes and methods were reported, with more reliance on smuggling via intermodal containers and commercial supply chains.
- At retail market level, following disruption in early lockdowns, drug sellers and buyers adapted by increasing their use of encrypted messaging services, social media apps, online sources and mail and home delivery services.
Drug use and potential harms
- Study findings indicate a reduced consumer interest in drugs usually associated with recreational events (e.g., MDMA), and some increased interest in drugs more associated with solitary or home use.
- Despite some reductions during the initial lockdown period, the easing of restrictions during the summer period was associated with a rebound in stimulant drug use (including MDMA, cocaine and amphetamine) in some cities.
- There were also reports of increased experimentation with psychedelic and dissociative drugs, including LSD, 2C-B, ketamine and GHB.
- Some countries reported an increase in crack cocaine availability and use.
- There were increasing reports of cannabis adulterated with highly potent synthetic cannabinoids (some outbreaks of acute harms and deaths associated with these substances).
- Specific concerns were also raised about the misuse of benzodiazepines, either diverted from therapeutic uses or not licensed for medical use. Increased use was reported among high-risk drug users, people in prison and recreational drug users.
- Drug services across Europe, including low-threshold services, drug consumption rooms and residential and outpatient treatment services, returned to operation in most countries from June 2020 (with strict COVID-19 measures and reduced capacity). Overall, drug services reported rapid adaptation, innovation and increased flexibility.
- While many professionals reported positive experiences of moving services online, some concerns were raised about reduced accessibility of telemedicine for certain client groups and associated challenges for treatment retention.
- Repeated school closures and online schooling proved challenging for implementing prevention and health-promoting programmes during the pandemic.
- In most European countries, the provision of drug services in prisons remained reduced throughout 2020, although efforts were made to maintain the provision of opioid substitution treatment as well as testing and treatment for infectious diseases.