Here’s how the pandemic has hindered illegal drug trafficking

  • Drugs and the materials to produce them are less available
  • Air traffic restrictions have upended the typical supply chain
  • Drug-related violence is rising, as are drug prices

A recent report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that the availability of illegal drugs has seen a significant drop in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Prices of many illegally trafficked drugs have also risen sharply, as traffickers around the globe experience shortages.

Synthetic drugs, like methamphetamine, are the most noticeably impacted. As these tend to be transported via air, restrictions on airfare have upended the typical supply chain. Other drugs, like cocaine—which is typically transported by sea—have seen a smaller shift as the pandemic continues to affect every part of daily life. Several recent seizures also show that heroin, a drug that is typically trafficked by land, has been shifting to alternate, maritime routes. Cannabis, for the most part, appears to be unaffected. 

As noted by the UNODC, a lack of drugs like heroin, for example, can lead to serious repercussions down the line. Desperate, dependent users have been known to switch to potentially deadly alternatives when supply is low. Users could begin taking domestically produced substances in their absence. Shortages of heroin have been reported in some areas of Europe, Southwest Asia, and North America. 

The decline in international trade is also having an effect on the illegal drug market. Labor shortages in some countries will only add to issues in the harvesting of opium poppy and coca plants. 

The decline in access to illicit drugs has led to an uptick in drug-related violence. Cartels and gangs, with less product and reduced ability to move what they do have, have shown signs of increased aggression. The decrease in income is likely to prompt some cartels and gangs to increase robberies, kidnappings, and extortion to compensate for the lost income. 

Shutdowns across factories and suppliers have had a particular effect on drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl, both of which often rely on chemicals obtained from China. Most cartels, including those in Mexico, rely heavily on shipments from China to produce these powerful, addictive substances. 

Sources: UNODC, Foreign Policy, Los Angeles Times, World Politics Review

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