On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, the virus has claimed millions of lives and has transformed nearly every aspect of our individual and collective reality. As with all areas of life, drug consumption, related harms and drug markets have been impacted, as have the services established to respond to drug-related problems. During the first weeks of the pandemic, the EMCDDA instigated two rapid assessment studies to identify the initial impact and implications of COVID-19. These studies identified signs of an overall decline in some forms of drug use during the first 3 months of the pandemic, largely as a result of national confinement measures. In addition, many drug services were forced to close or restrict their access, new measures for hygiene and social distancing were implemented, and there was a shift towards greater use of telemedicine.
Although from June 2020, many European countries gradually eased their lockdown measures, by the end of the year second and even third waves of COVID-19 and associated measures were experienced across Europe. As of March 2021, several European countries find themselves back in strict lockdown situations and with many national vaccination programmes experiencing delays.
The assessment is based on an established EMCDDA trendspotter methodology which is used to investigate emerging phenomenon where data is limited. It involves the use of multiple methods (survey, literature review, focus groups, etc.) and triangulation of a range of qualitative and quantitative sources. While the lack of comprehensive data means that all conclusions must be made with caution and be regarded as preliminary, it is useful to reflect on our current understanding of developments in this area.
Reports from national law enforcement experts indicate that the drug market has been remarkably resilient to disruption caused by the pandemic, with discovery of synthetic drug production sites and levels of cannabis cultivation in European countries remaining relatively stable. At wholesale level some changes in routes and methods are reported, with more reliance on smuggling via intermodal containers and commercial supply chains. While street-based retail drug markets were disrupted during the initial lockdowns, and some localised shortages were experienced, market adaptation is evident in the form of increased use of encrypted messaging services, social media applications, online sources and mail and home delivery services.