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Release publishes first results from large survey of people buying drugs through COVID.

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More than 1 in 10 purchases on Darknet

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. 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. Yesterday Release published the interim report which 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. Individuals aged 18 and over, residing in the UK, were eligible to complete the online survey and respondents were asked to describe a recent drug purchase.

Main findings

The majority of respondents did not report finding a supplier, or a desired drug, to be more difficult when comparing their experiences to before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, difficulties in finding a supplier, and a desired drug, were more often reported as the first national lockdown eased and lifted an observation consistent with supply shortages.

More than 1 in 10 purchases were made on the darknet. Of these purchases, 13% had not previously used the darknet to buy drugs, and over a quarter of the sample stated that they planned to use the darknet to buy drugs if necessary, signalling a shift to darknet markets that may have been prompted by the pandemic.

Reports of price(s) being higher than they were prior to the pandemic were more frequent than reports of prices being the same or lower. Higher prices were more often reported as the first national lockdown eased and lifted – an observation consistent with supply shortages.

The majority of respondents reported that the purity of their purchase remained the same (and for some, actually increased). This is consistent with suppliers responding to drug shortages by increasing prices and perhaps reducing deal-sizes, as opposed to using adulterants to bulk out products.

Purchases of cannabis products were most commonly reported across all periods of the pandemic (7 in 10 purchases overall), as expected. We found relatively infrequent purchases of MDMA/ecstasy, and other drugs associated with going out/partying – consistent with fewer opportunities to socialise related to pandemic-related restrictions.

In connection to almost two-thirds (62%) of drug purchases made during lockdown, respondents reported that their suppliers adhered to government-advised social distancing measures. There is evidence that some suppliers also adopted additional measures, similar to those adopted by licit markets (for example, accepting card payments and disinfecting cash), in order to further prevent virus transmission.

Drug use

Release asked survey respondents whether their drug use in general had increased, decreased, or stayed the same, in comparison to before the pandemic. Increased use was most commonly reported (43%), followed by reports that use had stayed the same (36%). About 1 in 5 respondents reported reduced drug use. There was, unsurprisingly, a particular increase in the use of Cannabis, while for people using most associated with going out/parties (MDMA, cocaine, ketamine), reporting reduced use was almost as common as reporting increased use.

When comparing their experiences to before the pandemic, more respondents reported increased contact with the police than reduced, or the same level of, contact with police.

 When comparing their experiences to before the pandemic, more respondents reported experiencing increased withdrawal symptoms, increased non-fatal overdoses, and increased injection equipment-sharing, than reduced, or the same level of, these harms.

Conclusion

Release have based the survey questions around the most recent experience of people buying drugs which provides a very reliable picture of the impact of the pandemic, including in particular lockdown, on drug buying behaviour. The survey is still live and can be accessed here and Release will be publishing the final report of the study which will cover both national lockdowns in May/June this year.

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