How the pandemic is transforming the illegal drug market – EDJ News

The illegal drug market has not suffered unduly due to Covid-19, and in some countries it actually is booming. These are the conclusions of Europol, the EU police agency, after a study of recent years’ figures. The 2019 EU Drug Markets Report was co-released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) on 29 May 2020. Its data covers the periods prior to and during the pandemic lockdowns. According to EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel, “Online trade and the expansion of encrypted communication put a heavier weight on law enforcement. It is likely that competition and violence will rise in the case of drug trafficking”. 

Unexpected situations, quick solutions 

The report summarizes the information submitted by member-state authorities, while adding Europol’s own data. The initial pandemic lockdowns caught drug-market actors by surprise, particularly those involved in distribution – restrictions on face-to-face meetings hindered drug deliveries. This temporary turmoil led to an increase in prices as some drugs on certain markets became more expensive. But transport of goods via public transit remained possible during the restrictions, and smugglers took advantage of it to move large quantities of product from one country to another. 

A boost for darknet markets, social media and encrypted messaging

Cash payments for drug deals fell in favour of electronic money transfer. This trend has been so effective that experts anticipate it will survive the pandemic. In the EU, money laundering regulations are regularly becoming stricter, but it is not yet clear how exactly they will work to hamper organised crime. 

Construction projects are also on hold due to the lockdowns, which is more bad news for criminals, who habitually launder large amounts of money in the real estate sector. The same applies to restaurants, casinos and beauty parlours. With the softening of the restrictions and the economic recovery, criminals are expected to go back to their old habits in these areas. However, there has been renewed interest in art investment, another sector used for hiding wealth and laundering money, and one with the advantage of having no fixed prices.

As mentioned, there have been shortages of certain drugs, notably cannabis and heroin. This caused price increases, and it seems some consumers were pushed towards alternative drugs. In the short term there was lower demand for synthetic drugs, particularly MDMA (ecstasy), as venues closed and festivals were cancelled. At the same time, the retail price of amphetamine and MDMA increased in several countries. Synthetic drug production continued during the pandemic at its main European locations, in Belgium and the Netherlands, as confirmed by raids and seizures. 

The Belgian cocaine port

The European cocaine trade, centered on the port of Antwerp, presents an interesting picture. Belgian authorities seized more shipments in the first three months of 2020 (that is, mostly before the pandemic erupted in Europe) than in the same period last year. Maritime transport was mostly uninterrupted even during the restrictions, so that the cocaine trade (among others) was mostly influenced by continental distribution issues. Some producer countries saw no shipments at all in January, February and March. Of those that did, Ecuador’s increased the most: 7.1 tonnes of container shipments arrived in the first three months compared to 1.7 tonnes last year. 

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Text & Image Source: EDJNet – The European Data Journalism Network, distribute under CC BY 4.0 International licence.

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