A month into the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, we asked drug users how quarantine had affected their drug use. The responses mostly chimed with what various studies into lockdown drug use have shown since: people were taking fewer party drugs, but more weed, booze and psychedelics.
One study by the Global Drug Survey also pointed to a substantial rise in the use of prescription benzodiazepines, like Valium and Xanax, and prescription opioids, such as codeine, Oxycontin and Tramadol.
While these drugs aren’t commonly sold by street dealers, dark web drug markets – which entered a “golden age” over the summer, as people logged on in their droves – make the purchase of these prescription pills a quick, cheap and easy process.
Global Drug Survey founder, Adam Winstock, warned in May that the lockdown could increase drug users’ habits, increasing the risk of dependency and other harms. “Summer”, a 21-year-old student at Leeds University, got addicted to opiate pills while trying to cope with boredom and anxiety over lockdown. Below, she tells VICE News her story.
When lockdown began, the majority of students I knew went back home to their parents’ houses to spend the time with their families.
But for many, including me, this wasn’t an option: we were left alone in now-desolate student areas after our friends and housemates fled.
My parents are both NHS doctors, so by the time lockdown hit they had a tripled workload. A few days into lockdown my grandfather was hospitalised with the coronavirus and subsequently died after it caused pneumonia in his lungs.
I felt like, if I returned home, I would just create added stress for them, and on top of that I was terrified that I would contract the virus from my parents, who were working with COVID patients.
Before the pandemic I had five other housemates, who I was extremely close friends with, and when lockdown was implemented they all left. Luckily, I managed to convince another of my friends, Ava, who was also avoiding home, to move in with me for the duration.
Those early months of initial lockdown were, for so many young people, defined by acute boredom. I was used to going clubbing with my university friends, taking drugs such as MDMA and ketamine, going to gigs or to the pub several times a week. With university shut, I didn’t even have lectures or seminars to look forward to – and the pre-recorded and Zoom-based replacements the university provided were so bad I ignored them completely. Where other people picked up mundane but wholesome hobbies to fill the time – baking bread, or Duolingo – I started using drugs.
Ava had worked out how to access the dark web, and it completely blew our minds. You could buy absolutely anything you wanted on there, and it was advertised so casually.
One marketplace had a list of the only rules that applied: “No assassinations, no child porn, no fentanyl,” but absolutely anything else was fair game. Some dealers were using gimmicks to sell their product; one Russian user advertised “Minion Meth” with images of the cartoon characters snorting lines.
We felt like kids in a sweet shop. There were drugs on the dark web that no dealers were selling to students. Speed – which no dealers in Leeds would sell, for fear of cutting into their cocaine profits – was available for as cheap as £2 a gram when bought in bulk. We bought 40 grams almost immediately, and it arrived faster than an Amazon package.
Most exciting for me was the range of opioid pills available.
The first time I ever tried opioids was during my first year of university, when a friend of mine broke his leg and was prescribed codeine for the pain. He chose instead to self-medicate by smoking weed, and gave away a lot of his pills.
I loved the high of codeine – it made me feel mellow and relaxed, but I craved stronger opioids. My favourite was Tramadol, which also affects serotonin levels in your brain and can give you a euphoric high, like a relaxing version of ecstasy.
Any pharmaceutical treats I wanted were available on the dark web for ridiculously low prices, especially when bought in huge quantities. If I bought in bulk, I could get a 200mg pill of Tramadol for 50p, which was enough to stay high for hours for less than the price of a Snickers.
Although me and Ava purchased drugs in huge quantities over lockdown, we never had any intentions of selling any on to other people. We were just so astounded by the bargains available. It was kind of like when you go into Ikea and leave with 300 tea lights and a bunch of crap you don’t need - everything was just so cheap and tempting, so we bought it.
The quantity and variety of drugs we consumed under lockdown was ridiculous. Some of the things we took out of curiosity, such as magic mushrooms, and some out of pure novelty, such as mephedrone.
Sometimes we would take a load of speed and go for long, fast, jittery walks down by the canal, and then through the dead city centre of nighttime Leeds, an activity that had a profoundly apocalyptic feel.
We used speed to make any activity more fun. Thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, games of chess, you name it – everything was more fun on amphetamines. Once, when wired, we made a huge collage of 1970s pornography on a wall out of old magazines we had found, and forgot to take it down when the landlord came over to fix the washing machine.
But the drugs that had really hooked me were the opioids. A couple weeks into lockdown, I was taking them every day.
I loved how they made me feel like I was drifting through life. I didn’t care about being trapped inside all day, in our squalid student house with no garden, or not being able to see my friends or family. I wasn’t scared about the increasingly urgent news reports, the death tolls, the threat of the virus. I wasn’t worrying about my dissertation, or my degree, or how the pandemic was going to affect my job prospects after it was finished. All because of a little red pill sent from a pharmaceutical factory in India. It was pure contentment in a blister pack. I was in love.
Writing my dissertation had also forced me into a balancing act between drugs, which only fuelled my consumption. I was taking speed to motivate myself and get words written down, and opioids to deal with the crippling comedowns. But then I’d need to take more speed to lift me out of the foggy opioid haze, and so the cycle became perpetual.
When I reached out to members of staff at Leeds University, including my dissertation supervisor, I was ignored or told to access help elsewhere.
By the time the lockdown restrictions began to be eased in June, I was totally physically addicted to the pills. My boyfriend – who had noticed changes in my behaviour – made me promise not to buy any more opioids online, and Ava stopped buying too. Since my supply had run out, this meant going cold turkey.
Going through withdrawal was the worst fortnight of my life. Ironically, over COVID lockdown, opioid withdrawal was like the worst flu ever, and it was combined with depression and nausea. Thankfully I had people around to support me through it. Ava sat with me in the bathroom for hours while I sipped Lucozade and lay in the bath, trying to not vomit. My long suffering parents gave medical advice over the phone. I cannot imagine how hard withdrawal must be for those who are not fortunate enough to have a support network in place.
I’m not the usual face of opioid addiction you’d see in the media. I’m a student at a Russell Group university in the UK. We’d like to think of the opioid epidemic as a uniquely American problem, a result of the combination of rural poverty and prescription-happy doctors under the spell of Big Pharma; and in some ways we’d be right – it’s such a huge problem in America, they even introduced a Sesame Street character whose mum is a pill popper, to explain addiction to kids through the medium of puppetry. But with opioids so readily available online, anybody can develop a habit, and we should recognise opioid abuse as a global problem.
Under the second lockdown, implemented on the 5th of November, students have been urged to remain in their accommodation.
For me, the joint forces of isolation, boredom and anxiety triggered by lockdown led me to abuse pills. I imagine I was not alone in developing drug dependency issues as a university student, so I hope for the sake of other students that this new lockdown sees increased levels of support for students, especially those trapped in university accommodation.
As for my own recovery, I’ve stayed fairly sober and managed to avoid opioids since going through withdrawal. News of the second lockdown did concern me, but I know I have the support structures in place to avoid relapsing into addiction. I will be going home to see my family at Christmas, even if this means breaking government guidelines. The prospect of being trapped alone in Leeds over Christmas is too bleak to imagine, and could be massively detrimental to my recovery.