The drug market between affluent societies and social despair

A few months ago, the World Drug Report 2020 was published, which assessed the development trends of the global drug market over the last ten years, and specifically highlighted the impact of Covid-19 on the drug market.

The pattern of population growth can partly explain the reasons for the market expansion. Drug abuse has increased worldwide, both in terms of overall number and share of drug users in the world population.

In 2009, it was estimated that there were 210 million drug users, accounting for 4.8% of the world’s population aged 15-64, compared to 269 million ones in 2018, accounting for 5.3% of the population.

Over the past two decades, drug abuse in developing countries has grown much faster than in developed countries. To some extent, this reflects the difference in overall population growth during this period – 7% in developed countries and 28% in developing countries – but it also highlights the rapid growth of the young population in developing countries.

Teenagers and young adults account for the largest proportion of drug users. During the 2000-2018 period, in developing countries population in this age group increased by 16%, while the population in this age group decreased by 10% in developed countries.

Urbanisation has become a driving factor for the current and future drug market. In both developed and developing countries, there are more drug users in urban areas than in rural areas. Part of the reason for the overall increase in drug use is the large-scale migration of people from rural to urban areas: over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, up from 34% in 1960. Urbanisation may be a key factor in the future drug market dynamics, especially in developing countries where urbanisation trends are more evident.

Increased wealth is associated with increased drug use, but poor people bear the greatest burden of diseases related to drug use. Worldwide, drug abuse is more common in developed countries than in developing ones. Drugs such as cocaine are more closely associated with the wealthiest regions in the world. Similarly, within countries, the prevalence of drug abuse among the wealthy segments of society is relatively high. However, people with a lower socio-economic status are more likely to be affected by disorders related to drug abuse.

Data from some countries show that there is a connection between patterns of harmful drug use and diseases typical of low-income groups. These patterns appear to be less common in wealthier social classes.

The economic constraints imposed by the global Covid-19 crisis are likely to exacerbate risks for the most vulnerable groups, including drug users. For example, changes in the labour market, such as rising unemployment, have been connected to the subsequent increase in drug use and a fortiori the epidemic has forced tens of millions of people around the world to lose their jobs while seeking refuge in dangerous havens at low prices, but with highly fatal consequences.

Covid-19 could lead to a further expansion of the drug market. The pandemic may induce more farmers and crofters to increase or engage in illegal crop cultivation, both because of the reduced control ability of national authorities and because more people may decide to bear the risk of engaging in illegal activities during the economic crisis.

The pandemic-related restrictions have led to a reduction in air and land traffic – hence maritime traffic has increased. The risk of interception at sea is low and the number of smuggled goods is higher than by air or land. It has recently been reported that cocaine is being shipped directly from South America to Europe by sea.

The emergence of internationally uncontrolled substances is stable, but new types of potentially harmful opioids are increasing. The drug market is becoming increasingly complex. In addition to traditional substances such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin, hundreds of synthetic drugs have been added, many of which are not under international control. Non-professional use of drugs is also increasing rapidly. Every year there are about 500 new active substances on the States’ domestic markets.

At present, most of them are stimulants, followed by synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists and a small amount of opioids. Although the overall number of new psychoactive substances has levelled off and stabilised, the ratio has changed. Of the total number of new psychoactive substances identified in 2014, the new opioid psychoactive substances accounted for only 2%, but in 2018 their number had risen to 9%. Many of the new opioid psychoactive substances are analogues of fentanyl, whose efficacy and harm have been demonstrated, causing overdose deaths in North America and other regions, but to a lesser extent.

In North America, fentanyl is used as an excitatory drug for heroin and other drugs (including cocaine and methamphetamine), and some substances are used to produce counterfeit medicinal opioids. Some evidence shows that new injections of psychoactive stimulants are also circulating in Europe: a study of discarded syringe residues in six European cities found that many syringes are stained with new psychoactive substances that produce even more devastating effects.

The use of new psychoactive substances may gradually become firmly established among the most disadvantaged groups. A single type of new psychoactive substances has hardly formed a large market. Evidence from Europe, however, shows that synthetic cannabinoids are a severe problem among marginalised groups such as homeless and prisoners. There are twenty-two countries reported for the use of new psychoactive substances in prisons, most of them with synthetic cannabinoids identified as very dangerous.

The control of chemical precursors forces drug manufacturers to innovate. Many of the chemicals most commonly used as precursors to synthesise drugs such as amphetamine, methamphetamine and ecstasy have come under international scrutiny. Drug traffickers have sought alternatives – and not just scarcely regulated substances – but also chemicals specifically designed to circumvent regulations, the so-called “special precursors”.

Designed to prevent restrictive measures, it is likely that – with the spread of Covid-19 – drug production will depend on further compression of those chemical precursors. Evidence found even in Mexico shows that this has become a reality: reports suggest that in 2020 a shortage of methamphetamine precursors imported from East Asia caused an increase in the price of methamphetamine in Mexico and the United States.

The rate of change in the drug market has accelerated dramatically. Synthetic drugs are replacing opiates in Central Asia and the Russian Federation. Opioid markets in these two regions appear to have changed between 2008 and 2018.

The number of opiates intercepted by the Russian Federation’s authorities has decreased by 80% approximately, while the number of people receiving treatment for opioid use has dropped dramatically. The market for stimulants, however, seems to be expanding day by day. There is evidence that methamphetamine and various cathinones, including mephedrone and α-pyrrolidinyl-phenylpentanal, are now everywhere on the Russian drug market. The Russian authorities have reported that recently the number of clandestine laboratories for the production of various illegal drugs has increased significantly, and has more than doubled in two years, rising to 152 laboratories as early as 2018.

There is also a growth of the methamphetamine market in Afghanistan and Iraq. As early as 2012, surveys carried out on staff in hospitals, prisons and other institutions revealed the importance of methamphetamine in Iraq. Crystal methamphetamine has become another major drug of concern, besides fentanyl and tramadol. A study has further confirmed these findings, with drug users claiming that cannabis is more difficult to obtain than fentanyl or methamphetamine. Recently, Iraqi authorities have discovered several methamphetamine laboratories and concern has been expressed about the large imports of pseudoephedrine preparations: methamphetamine laboratories use these preparations as precursors.

In Afghanistan, methamphetamine production seems to have started in 2014. Since then, methamphetamine seizures have steadily increased. In the first half of 2019, however, seizures increased significantly compared to the previous year. Large seizures of methamphetamine – believed to have originated in Afghanistan – in other nations also show that production in that country is increasing rapidly.

As we can see, drugs have turned from means of distraction for the bored European world into an alternative for desperate people with no chance of job fulfilment.

Giancarlo Elia Valori