A shortage of illicit drugs is imminent due to the coronavirus lockdown – and the consequences could be deadly

Various aspects of life need radical recalibration, including our stagnant approach to drug policy. If ever there was a time to introduce consumption rooms, it is now.

Ian Hamilton
Tuesday 24 March 2020 11:08 GMT
Boris Johnson announces nationwide lockdown to tackle coronavirus

We’ve already witnessed the havoc of coronavirus on retail and other business as panic-buying compromises supply and distribution of food and some medicines. But the illicit drug market is not immune to coronavirus either.

We are a net importer of drugs like cocaine and heroin, so when borders are shut moving drugs becomes more difficult. But even drugs like cannabis or ecstasy which can be produced in the UK face other threats to trade. Fluctuations in currencies due to market uncertainty are causing some online dealers to think again about accepting payment in Bitcoins, amplifying supply restrictions.

People don’t behave rationally in these situations, whether it’s about the supply of toilet roll or cocaine. Just as we’ve seen with essential goods, buyers and sellers of drugs will respond irrationally to the usually well-functioning drug market. Buyers, if they can, will stock up on their drug of choice, compounding supply issues, adding to the risk of abrupt withdrawal for those that can’t afford to do the same.

If people can’t secure their drug of choice, they look for alternatives. We already know that the shortage of some novel psychoactive substances like spice means people are experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and some are substituting these drugs with prescription drugs like diazepam. Drugs like spice are also used paradoxically, in our most secure settings like prison, any drug drought will increase the price of these drugs and elevate tensions in these already volatile settings.

The illicit market has no standards to abide by, there is only one rule: profit. When one drug is in short supply, another takes its place. The problem here is what form that replacement drug takes. The risk is relatively low if the substitute drug offered is of similar potency, but if, for example, heroin is substituted with fentanyl – a drug fifty times more potent – the potential for overdose is clear. The UK already has the highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe, this could amplify that significantly if the market is left to its own devices. Public Health England is aware of this and other risks people face when the market is disrupted like this but is limited in its ability to mitigate such risks.

If ever there was a time to introduce drug consumption rooms, it is now. Not only would they provide a safe and sterile place for people to consume their drugs, but they also ensure immediate help is on hand should someone accidentally overdose. The introduction of such rooms requires a shift in political ideology and public perception, yet this crisis might just provide the right ingredients to facilitate that. Drug consumption rooms wouldn’t just protect those using drugs, it would serve us all well, some of the most vulnerable and high-risk individuals would engage with services that could minimise contagion and the need to be hospitalised.

Matt Hancock pledges to fight coronavirus with 'everything we've got'

Clearly there are challenges in gathering reliable intelligence on what is happening in the illicit drug market. As with specialist drug treatment the state has subcontracted responsibility for gathering information and communicating harm reduction advice to the third sector. Evidence of how to reduce the potential harm drugs can cause is clear and the government knows this. But there appears to be some cherry-picking by this government as it has ignored the advice of its own advisors who recommended trialling drug consumption facilities.

The state’s role on drug use advice extends beyond those who are dependent on drugs. Recreational users of drugs like cocaine need to know how they can reduce the risks they face. For example, ensuring surfaces are clean and that a new straw, rather than a used banknote is used to snort the drug. Recreational users are a significant proportion of the population with 1.5 million regular users of drugs. A number that could swell during times of heightened stress, isolation and anxiety as many will be inclined to seek additional self-soothing that some drugs provide.

This coronavirus pandemic has already changed political ideology, as the Conservative government’s moves, which make Labour’s pre-election spending proposals look frugal, show. Other aspects of life need an equally radical recalibration, including our stagnant approach to drug policy. Rather than reducing harm, prohibition magnifies the harm of drug use. Admitting that drug policy isn’t working is the first step towards creating policy that not only protects us all but for some will literally be a lifesaver.

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