The Covid-19 pandemic has meant changes to the drug market and our habits – be careful this summer

The easiest way to avoid harm is not to take illegal substances – but it is unrealistic to expect that drug use will not take place as nightclubs return

Ian Hamilton
Sunday 25 July 2021 13:49
<p>Nightclubs were allowed to re-open again on 19 July</p>

Nightclubs were allowed to re-open again on 19 July

The pent-up demand for festivals and nightclubs is tangible, and as many people get ready to party, some will be planning on combining their nights out with illegal substances such as cocaine, ecstasy or other psychoactive drugs.

This makes for a perfect constellation of events that has the potential for drug-related harm. More than a year of restrictions due to Covid-19 have merged with a changing drug market. Young people are also reporting a significant rise in mental health problems and may have trouble accessing professional support in a timely manner.

After 18 months of the pandemic, it’s easy to imagine why so many want to party, but this could lead some to take risks with drugs they would not usually consider.

Ingesting drugs orally means it takes time to feel the effects. Unlike regulated drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, there is no product information provided for ecstasy, cocaine or ketamine. The only way you know how strong they are or whether they are the drug you think they are is when you begin to feel their effects. For many that will be too late as they overdose or start having a bad trip.

During the pandemic, the drug market changed in both demand and supply. There has been reduced demand for stimulant drugs like ecstasy and an increase in the use of depressant drugs like cannabis and Xanax. The market has, as it always does, responded in a nimble way.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid harm is not to use drugs, but it’s unrealistic to think this is what everyone going to clubs and festivals will do. If drug use is planned, any unwanted effect will be lower by ingesting small doses rather than taking a larger quantity or multiple doses within a short time.

Most fatal drug overdoses occur when drugs are combined, and it’s important to avoid this type of polydrug use. Cocaine and alcohol are often combined because people use the stimulant effect of cocaine to offset the depressant effect of alcohol. However, this means there is the potential to counter either of these effects by drinking more or consuming larger quantities of cocaine, and both these actions increase the risk of harm.

Some people will have taken a break from party drugs during Covid, meaning that their tolerance is reduced, and restarting a drug at the usual dose can be problematic.

Fiona Measham, director of We Are The Loop, a charity that provides drug-checking services, views festivals opening as a great chance to engage young people in harm-reduction advice. They could also be an opportunity to offer Covid vaccinations. Given that nearly a third of young people have still to receive a Covid vaccination, this would be another way to improve uptake of the vaccine.

But don’t expect any official harm reduction advice, as our government persists with a policy based on a combination of punishment and denial, the two least effective approaches to reducing drug-related harm.

Until that changes, expect this to be a summer that many will remember – but not for the right reasons, as more party-goers are harmed.

Ian Hamilton is associate professor of addiction at the University of York

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