What Really Happened to Britain's Drug Supply During the First Lockdown?

A survey by drug information charity Release reveals existing stashes kept trade going during last year's lockdown in Britain – and that many dealers practised social distancing and wore masks and gloves.
Max Daly
London, GB
February 25, 2021, 12:15am
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An HM Customs and Excise officer holds cocaine recovered during a drug bust. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images

Drug supply remained stable during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown last year, because drug gangs had enough stock for three months, a survey of the country’s drug market suggests.   

Carried out among 2,600 people between April and September last year by drug charity Release, the ongoing survey found that supply, quality and price of most illegal drugs was not affected by the initial lockdown between March and May.

It was only when the lockdown was eased and then lifted that drug shortages kicked in. Drug users noticed that drugs became harder to source and increased in price, leaving some to buy supplies from new and unfamiliar sellers. 

Research found that at the start of the first lockdown in March, mid-level drug suppliers were confident their own suppliers had enough stock for around three months – a period that broadly aligns with the length of time between the start and eventual easing of lockdown. In July VICE World News reported some drug gangs had access to pandemic drug stashes worth £125,000.  

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The Release report suggests the wave of Encro Chat arrests and busts across the UK and Europe starting in June may have had an additional impact on supply shortages during the easing of lockdown. 

The survey, published Thursday, revealed that many drug dealers – despite their criminal actions – stuck to pandemic health rules. Two thirds of dealers were reported to practise the two metre social distancing rule when swapping drugs and cash. They achieved this by leaving products in certain locations, such as gardens and windowsills, and posting products through letter boxes or windows, with some mentioning suppliers throwing products from cars.

Over a third (38 percent) wore gloves and 31 percent – only slightly less than the general public – wore masks. Three in ten dealers modified their drug packaging because of the pandemic, with suppliers double-bagging products and using antibacterial solutions on packaging. One in five sellers switched to cashless payments such as PayPal and direct debit. 

One in ten drug users said they had bought drugs on the darknet over lockdown, with 13 percent of them saying the situation had led them to buying drugs on the dark web market for the first time.  

“At the start of lockdown, many presumed that the drugs market would be severely affected by border closures across the globe and by ‘stay at home’ restrictions, but in fact the majority of respondents to the survey did not report finding a supplier, or their desired drug, to be more difficult compared to before the arrival of COVID-19,” said Judith Aldridge, lead author of the report.   

“We did, however, observe increased difficulties in purchasing drugs as the first lockdown eased and was lifted, this also coincided with reports of increased prices, which would be consistent with supply shortages starting to have an effect on the market. Our results seem to suggest that suppliers were charging more and, in some cases, reducing deal-sizes rather than sacrificing the purity of the drug they were supplying.” 

The survey found, as other surveys have done, that double the proportion of people (43 percent) reported that their drug use had increased since the pandemic, compared to 21 percent who said they had reduced it. Weed, cocaine and psychedelics were the three most popular drug types over lockdown. Respondents also reported increased contact with the police, increased withdrawal symptoms, increased non-fatal overdoses, and increased injection equipment-sharing since before the pandemic. 

Tony Saggers, an organised crime consultant and former head of drugs at the National Crime Agency, told VICE World News: “Few suppliers along the route will take the risk of holding more than enough to keep supply fluid.” Drug gangs avoid holding large stashes because the longer they hold onto them, the bigger risk they face of a long jail sentence, said Saggers. “I think the combination of there being less cover for suppliers due to COVID, and the Encro Chat seizures, will have been disruptive, and cause of paranoia for some.”

@narcomania