While many businesses have been left reeling due to Covid, one sector has proved to be resilient. The illicit drug market has vast experience of operating under restrictions and has demonstrated how adept it is in circumventing numerous interventions by governments to curtail its activity.
Despite some lucky breaks by enforcement agencies this year, obtaining EncroChat intelligence revealing drug supply and distribution activity, there has been barely a dent in the accessibility of drugs. The two early warning signs of disruption, price rises and reduced supply have not materialised. But that’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t impacted this market.
The new EU report reveals changes in the way organised crime is supplying drugs. The strategy is to move fewer but larger consignments in an effort to ensure minimum disruption to availability. Of course, this means that law enforcement agencies are erroneously claiming record success in the seizures they are making, when these merely reflect this change in strategy by organised crime.
While the cat and mouse activities of enforcement and organised crime continue, the individuals using drugs are left exposed to the consequences of this ineffective war on drugs. The EU report points to increasing purity and potency of drugs like cocaine, a drug that is now better value than it’s ever been as people are paying less for a purer product. This is just one example of what the report describes as the result of a “dynamic and increasingly interconnected market”.
Not only are more people in the UK using cocaine, but record numbers are presenting to specialist treatment services for help with problems due to the drug.
This raises another intriguing finding from the report: the length of time between first use of a drug and the average age of presentation to treatment. The time lag for cannabis is only eight years, with an average age of first use at 17 years old and treatment presentation at 25 years old. Compare this to cocaine where the average age of first use is 23 years old and treatment presentation is 35 years old - a 12-year lag.
This elongated journey from first use to treatment isn’t matched by the potential for addiction, as cocaine generates dependency far faster than cannabis. Although both drugs are used widely in society, it’s likely that this differing time lag is explained by something more than just chemical dependency.
As public services have shrunk, the impact of this has disproportionately been felt by those with the least - those experiencing poverty, unstable, poorly-paid employment or housing problems. All of which can exacerbate drug use and the problems associated with this. So, it is highly likely that it is a combination of social problems and dependency issues that are driving people into specialist treatment, in the hope that they can be supported with these issues as well as drug problems.
Encouragingly, drug treatment services have adapted as nimbly as organised crime during the pandemic, making use of telemedicine to counter Covid restrictions, for example. But there is a limit to ingenuity which is restrained by cuts to funding of these services.
If European governments persist with the war on drugs, they must commit to adequately funding the support services they help create the demand for. This failed policy continues to generate harm to individuals and the communities they live in, and now it seems this will be compounded by failures to support the casualties that this policy helps to produce.
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