New survey explores impact of coronavirus on the illegal drugs market in the UK

Categories: School of Health and Society

Since the beginning of the first national coronavirus lockdown, Release has operated a public, online survey designed to monitor how people are buying their drugs.

Dr Moore

The purpose of this survey, which is open to anyone residing in the UK over the age of 18, is to determine the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic, and corresponding restrictions, have had on buying illegal substances. In the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted all aspects of our lives, it is reasonable to expect that with lockdowns and global restrictions on movement, the drug market will also be impacted.

This interim report presents findings from the first 2,621 responses, received between the survey’s launch on the 9th April 2020 and the 17th September 2020 (inclusive); which captures drug purchases made in anticipation of and during the first national lockdown, as well as purchases made during the easing, and eventual lifting, of that first lockdown. The survey is still ongoing and can be accessed from the Release website. Findings from 18th September 2020 onwards, and overall, will be published in the final report in May/June 2021.

Judith Aldridge, Lead Author, says: “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. 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.


“One in ten purchases reported in the survey were made on darknet markets, and of these, 13% reported having used the darknet for the first time. It may be that the pandemic prompted a shift to online buying in order to skirt some of the additional risks involved in making face-to-face drug purchases during lockdown, and to obtain products not otherwise locally available. About one quarter of respondents stated that they planned to use darknet markets if they could not find the drug they were looking for locally. This suggests that these markets may have been seen as an attractive alternative to face-to-face drug buying during the pandemic.”

Laura Garius, Policy Lead for Release and co-author of the report, says: “In addition to the findings that suppliers were adhering to social distancing measures for the majority of purchases made during lockdown, we also saw suppliers adopting measures similar to those adopted by legal markets in order to further prevent virus transmission. These measures included suppliers accepting card payments, disinfecting cash, and modifying their packaging. The additional precautions taken by suppliers to protect their buyers challenge longstanding perceptions of suppliers as ‘morally bereft actors’”.

Respondents were also asked about their experience of using drugs during the first lockdown, and as lockdown eased in the summer months of 2020. Worryingly, more people reported experiencing: increased withdrawal symptoms, increased non-fatal overdoses, and increased injection equipment-sharing, than the number of people reporting reduced, or the same level of, these harms. We also asked people about their experiences of policing during the first lockdown and found that when compared to before the pandemic, more respondents reported increased contact with the police than reduced, or the same level of, contact with police. 

Laura Garius commented, “This reflects reports we received on Release’s national legal helpline, with an increased number of calls from people being stopped and searched by police for drugs, the majority of callers being from Black and other ethnic minority communities - begging the question of why this was a priority for police in the middle of a pandemic.” 

Dr Karenza Moore, co-author and Lecturer in Criminology and Security, highlights how: "With the night-time economy shut, we saw a fall in the purchase of 'club drugs' such as MDMA/Ecstasy during this period. From the survey, we also found more people buying drugs on the darknet than ever before, although door-to-door delivery remained popular".

Despite stereotypes about drug dealers, Release found them to be to be following covid safe measures in roughly the same proportions as the general public, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

Dr Moore says: "As a group we are continuing to monitor the impact of the Covid crisis on UK drug markets, with a focus on reducing drug-related and prohibition harms". 

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional risk(s) for people who use drugs. Whilst the pandemic has led to discovering new ways to provide harm reduction services, such as delivering or mailing supplies, extending prescription lengths, medicine hotlines for prescriptions, screening clients for COVID-19 symptoms in efforts to prevent transmission, as well as smaller initiatives such as Release’s own ‘essential-journey’ travel cards to assist in people’s journeys to services, more must be done to assist harm reduction services in their operations moving forward.

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