Restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have forced innovation across sectors, including the global drug market, which has turned to new routes, trafficking methods and illegal substances, the UN warned in a report published today.
The latest World Drug Report presents an increasingly complex situation with the use of traditional drugs like cocaine, heroin and cannabis at an all-time high as well as the proliferation of synthetic substances, reports Efe news.
"Due to Covid-19, traffickers may have to find new routes and methods, and trafficking activities via the darknet and shipments by mail may increase, despite the international postal supply chain being disrupted," the report said.
"The pandemic has also led to opioid shortages, which, in turn, may result in people seeking out more readily available substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or mixing with synthetic drugs. More harmful patterns of use may emerge as some users switch to injecting, or more frequent injecting."
According to Ghada Waly, Executive Director for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there are more people using drugs, more substances and more types of narcotics than ever.
The drug market is becoming increasingly complex, with the use of plant-based substances like cannabis, cocaine and heroin as well as hundreds of synthetic drugs, many beyond international control, rising, the report said.
The UN has also registered a spike in the use of pharmaceutical drugs, in some cases counterfeits, for recreational purposes and without medical supervision, something that has caused tens of thousands of deaths in the US in recent years.
There were some 269 million drug users in the world in 2018, which amounts to 5.4 per cent of the world's adult population, one out of every 19 people on the planet, the report said.
The figure is 30 per cent higher than in 2009, with more than 35 million people suffering from serious drug addiction disorders.
Experts believe 585,000 people will die from drug use, a figure mirrored in last year's report on narcotics use in 2017.
Cannabis is still the most popular drug in the world with 192 million users, but opioids, like heroin and its analogues, are the most lethal and are behind two-thirds of deaths.
In the last decade, drug use has grown at a much faster rate in developing countries than in the industrialized world.
The UN has identified inequality as a deciding factor in drug use, with the most serious drug addiction problems recorded among the poorest in society.
"We need all governments to show greater solidarity and provide support, to developing countries most of all, to tackle illicit drug trafficking and offer evidence-based services for drug use disorders and related diseases, so we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, promote justice and leave no one behind," Waly said.
As a result of coronavirus lockdowns, traffickers are identifying new routes and methods through the so-called deep web and postal mailing of drugs has also increased, the report added.
Air routes, important for trafficking of amphetamines and synthetic drugs, and land routes, essential for heroin trade, have had to be modified due to flight cancellations and the closure of borders.
The increase in cocaine seizings in European ports and the heroin loads seized on ships in the Indian Ocean, as an alternative to the Balkan road route, are indications of these changes.
The slowdown in international trade has also been noted in the shortage of chemical substances needed to produce heroin and cocaine, which has seen a decline in manufacturing volume.
The UN noted that increased border controls have resulted in less heroin trafficking from Mexico to the US, which has led to a shortage of the opioid. A drop in supply has also been detected in Europe.
The rise in prices of narcotics also points to a shortage of supply.
Restrictions on movement may have led to a provisional drop in the use of stimulants often consumed at music festivals and clubs.
The absence of opioids due to the restrictions has led to the search for substitutes, leading to a spike in the use of alcohol, benzodiazepines and synthetic drugs, the UN warned.
Heroin users have also turned to more harmful substances produced locally, such as fentanyl which is 50 times more powerful than the opioid.
The emergence of more harmful consumption patterns via injectable substances have resulted in a higher risk of transmission of diseases like HIV or Hepatitis-c.
The economic crisis as a result of the pandemic will affect the most vulnerable in society due to a rise in unemployment and poverty, which could lead to an increase in drug use, illicit cultivation or drug trafficking to survive..