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Coronavirus disrupts supply of illicit drugs, affecting potency, availability, prices

The Drug Enforcement Administration and others say the supply of drugs has been disrupted, likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This photo shows cocaine and crack confiscated in a 2001 drug bust.   (SR)
The Drug Enforcement Administration and others say the supply of drugs has been disrupted, likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This photo shows cocaine and crack confiscated in a 2001 drug bust.  (SR)

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted supply chains, making it harder for shoppers to find meat, cleaning supplies and toilet paper on the shelves of local stores. But the disease – and the restrictions put in place to slow its spread – has also reduced the availability of illicit drugs, some medical and law enforcement professionals believe.

Dr. Lora Jasman, a specialist in internal medicine and addiction medicine at the Rockwood Clinic, said her patients are telling her that it’s harder to obtain illicit drugs – and that they believe it’s because of coronavirus.

“It’s harder to get their drug of choice,” Jasman said. “It might be more expensive to get their drug of choice. But they don’t know how to get into treatment, and so some of them could be sick out there, and more sick than usual, in withdrawal and not really know that treatment is available.”

While on-the-ground data is in its early stages, local and federal drug control agencies have seen the pandemic affect drug supply and pricing, though to what degree varies based on the agency.

Keith Weis, Drug Enforcement Administration Pacific Northwest region special agent in charge, said he is seeing small price increases in methamphetamine, pills containing fentanyl and cocaine. But, he added, it’s too early to identify what’s causing the disruptions. Weis said it is important to know that the people who obtain, distribute and sell illegal drugs run their operations just like big businesses . Weis does not believe the price changes would be significant enough to discourage someone from purchasing as they normally would.

Michael Miller, DEA spokesman, echoed that it would be premature to identify a cause, though he “has identified supply chain disruptions of nearly all illicit drugs, both at the wholesale and retail level.” Miller said the agency has determined that methamphetamine appears to be the drug most affected drug in terms of supply.

“About half of all DEA domestic field divisions are reporting price increases at the retail and wholesale level, especially in areas where methamphetamine is most prevalent,” Miller said in an email.

Steven Freng, Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area prevention treatment manager, supports drug task forces across the region, and he is hearing that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the availability of a variety of illicit drugs. Though he could not cite a specific cause, Freng has heard about a variety of causes that appear likely .

High on the list is that tightened border restrictions have limited the movement of the supply. Freng said this has even led to an increase in maritime smuggling. Because of this, Freng said, he doesn’t think the illicit drug trade will revert to normal once the U.S. fully opens. The illicit drug business is global, and the effects may be seen for years.

Another potential cause may be less obvious. The packaging for many drugs – tiny plastic bags – often comes from China, and shipping products from China has become trickier.

One of Freng’s concerns, shared by Jasman, is that to avoid withdrawal, users might substitute other drugs – even when the substitution isn’t comparable – or purchase from a different dealer, whose drugs could be laced with other substances or have different degrees of potency.

“Some folks try to forestall getting sick because of abstinence by switching, and in some cases that works. In other cases, it’s not really that practical,” Freng said. “They’re forced to go to different sources, different dealers, moving different kinds of products that they’re not familiar with, and they have no idea what potency issues are involved in the different ingredients.”


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