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The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the illegal drug trade

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the illicit drug trade through increased border controls among other restrictions.
The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the illicit drug trade through increased border controls among other restrictions. (Patrick Sandoval/AP)

The novel-coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the illicit drug trade through increased border controls, reduced air traffic and supply shortages, though the outbreak’s economic fallout may lead to more people getting involved in the business, a United Nations-sponsored report warned.

The upcoming opium harvest in Afghanistan may be hurt by virus-related labor shortages, and cocaine output in Colombia has been hit by a lack of gasoline, while production of synthetic drugs in Mexico has been slowed by shortages of precursor chemicals from Southeast Asia. The report added that lockdowns in Europe may trigger an increase in demand for marijuana that can likely be serviced by more local production.

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“Mobility restrictions, closed borders and a decline in overall world trade can disrupt the supply chains of drug markets and may diversify drug trafficking patterns and routes,” the report said. “Sudden changes in the supply and availability of drugs can in turn trigger changes in consumption behaviors.”

The disruptions vary depending on the type of drug and the geography of the production and traffic routes, said the report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The 37-page document is based on data from government, open sources — including the media — and UNDOC field offices.

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Trafficking has seen less disruption in areas with fewer virus-control measures such as the Middle East and the Balkans, the report said.

The fallout from the virus will also potentially have long-term effects. The disruption to trafficking may lead to stockpiling of drugs along supply chains, the report added. That could create an increase in supply once restrictions are eased, and could flood markets with cheap, very pure drugs, risking an uptick in overdoses.

And the economic hardship caused by Covid-19 may also produce additional burdens on the disadvantaged that could lead to more people entering the drug trade, the report said.

The disruptions are also prompting drug dealers to change strategies, and there is evidence that some are resorting to sea routes, with air transport limited and border patrols more onerous.

Traffickers are also exploiting the coronavirus fallout to enhance their social standing by providing assistance to local populations. They also may be diversifying into virus-related cybercrime and distributing fake medicine, the report warned.

“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,” the report said.

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