Coronavirus | COVID-19 unlikely to affect illicit drug supply, says United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Precursor chemicals used to make illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, ketamine, heroin and fentanyl seized by Myanmar police and military are seen in this undated photo near Loikan village in Shan State, between February and April 2020 in what the UNODC described as Asia’s biggest-ever drug bust.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Movement restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to an initial statistical reduction in drug seizures, but without a real change in terms of supply in the East and Southeast Asia region, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

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Re-ordering of governments’ priorities and resources towards the pandemic could also jeopardise the efforts to strengthen drug prevention and treatment programmes, said the report on “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia”.

The report said that not every fluctuation in terms of drug seizures, prices, drug-related arrests or deaths in the coming months would be a direct or indirect consequence of the outbreak.

“Organised crime groups active in the region have shown a high degree of flexibility to respond to shortages of supplies, raising risk levels on certain trafficking routes. The flexibility of the illicit economy, which does not have to wait for new rules and regulations to enter into force, should also not be underestimated,” it said.

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The UNODC said a large proportion of methamphetamine, the main synthetic drug of concern in the region, was manufactured, trafficked and consumed without the need for globalised supply chains.

“Trafficking in the lower Mekong region also takes place in a variety of ways across borders which are porous and difficult to control, and cross-border movements in many places will not be significantly hindered by COVID-19 measures. While containerised trafficking exists, it is just one of many methods used, and the impact of reduced container trade may be limited,” said the report.

Where movements were significantly affected, for instance couriers and body-packing through airports, routes and methods would change quickly, leading to an initial statistical reduction in seizures, but without a real change in terms of supply.

Limited control

Given that extreme levels of synthetic drug production took place in the region, partially due to a limited government control in the Golden Triangle (the area where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet), trafficking would continue at high volumes.

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“In particular, the supply of precursor chemicals is not likely to be disrupted for the foreseeable future because sourcing of chemicals by major organised crime groups is largely through direct diversion from industry within the region and subsequent trafficking, not diversion from illicit overseas trade channels,” said the report.

Increased crime

Due to social distancing and movement restrictions in several countries, street dealing of drugs might be significantly impacted and altered. Users’ methods to access drugs would also change. Economic hardship might also reduce the disposable income of some drug users, and result in increased crime.

“An already vulnerable population of drug users may be exposed to additional risks as funding is re-prioritised, access to programmes and services becomes difficult, activities of treatment providers are hampered, and communities concentrate on coping with the repercussions of the pandemic,” the report said.

Additional efforts would be required at the national, regional and international level to carefully analyse methods and trends to understand changes to drug markets in the wake of the pandemic, it added.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 10:34:35 PM |

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