COVID-19 changed our lives: from travel bans, social and physical isolation and empty cities to workers laid off and governments scrambling to muster effective responses. The impact that coronavirus had on people varies widely and differently between countries. Relationships were placed under new stresses and for those educating children at home, long division never seemed so hard.
But there’s one thing that no-one was talking about, and Drug Science couldn’t help but wonder…
How did COVID-19 affect drug use?
The Drug Science Student Society teamed up with the Global Drug Survey to work out what people who use drugs did throughout the lockdown. The Global Drug Survey (GDS) Special Edition on COVID-19 was developed as part of a global effort to better understand the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives with a specific focus on the use of alcohol and other drugs, mental health and relationships.
Professor Adam R Winstock is a Consultant Addiction Psychiatrist and Addiction Medicine specialist based in London. He is an Honorary Clinical Professor at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College London. He has published over 120 papers. He is the founder and director of Global Drug Survey, an independent organisation that runs the biggest drug survey in the world. He is also the architect of the free online and smartphone apps DrugsMeter and DrinksMeter and the world’s first safer use cannabis guidelines at www.saferuselimits.com.
The Global Drug Survey aimed to promote honest conversations about drug use: especially among the `hidden mass` of everyday people. Furthermore, the GDS seeks to promote the safe use of drugs, regardless of their legal status. The survey is entirely anonymous and is hosted online. Participants came from several countries: Germany, France, Ireland, Brazil, Switzerland, Netherlands, New Zealand, UK, Australia, Austria and the USA. Although the sample collected by GDS is not representative of any nation, it still provides insight into drug use and its positive and negative effects.
So how did COVID-19 affect the drug market according to the survey participants? The obvious, yet true answer is that due to international travel restrictions, drug supply availability declined. Yet, the purity of the substances remained the same. At the same time, there was a reduction in demand for drugs used in social settings: substances such as cocaine or MDMA. On the other hand, there was an increased demand for drugs that can be used alone, such as cannabis, benzodiazepines, and opiates. When it comes to GHB and amphetamines, some people reported an increase in their use, while others a decrease.
As an overall measure of drug use, most people did not report major changes in their habits. It is likely due to their drug use being infrequent.
When asked about value for money, participants reported an increase in price for both cannabis and LSD. The former is likely due to increased demand, while the latter is due to the psychedelic renaissance.
GDS showed that alcohol intake increased across the board due to boredom, and having more time. The survey identified that those with pre-existing mental health conditions were more likely to increase their alcohol use. In their case, the reason for doing so was feeling depressed, anxious, and lonely. This group also reported worsening mental and physical health as a result of drinking.
With regards to cannabis, 40-50% of people increased their cannabis use due to being bored. Those with pre-existing mental health conditioned noted that they used cannabis to cope with stress, depression, and loneliness. These findings are very similar to the changes in alcohol intake. However, cannabis did not have the same negative effect as alcohol. Although a small percentage of respondents reported worse mental health, among those with pre-existing mental health problems, a quarter reported feeling better thanks to their cannabis use.
An interesting finding of the survey was that 1 in 3 respondents reduced their drinking while 1 in 4 reduced their cannabis smoking during the pandemic. Cutting down on alcohol led to improvement in mental, and physical health as well as finances. Reducing cannabis use led to improvement for healthy participants, however, for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, it led to worse mental health and work performance.
Although COVID related drug use harm reduction messages did not reach most participants, they instinctively found strategies to reduce their chances of contracting COVID-19 during using drugs.
The challenge for those who increased their use of drugs during lockdown is to find out how to help protect themselves from harm in the long term. How will they be able to adapt back to normal life in the light of their changed habits? This is just one of the many questions that will be answered in the future. Meanwhile, one thing is for sure: changing the conversation and culture around drugs is one of the best ways to reduce harm for those who choose to take drugs recreationally. That’s why we’re so proud of what we do here at Drug Science, and if you’d like to get involved then please consider supporting us.
This data came from the Global Drug Survey