While social drug use is expected to fall, experts worry the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the opioid epidemic.
The coronavirus pandemic is already changing United States drug policy. Marijuana is an “essential business” in the eyes of state governments and lawmakers believe cannabis legalization could provide necessary stimulation to the post-coronavirus economy.
But how is the pandemic changing drug use? The short answer: Social drug use is going down, but problematic drug use could be on the rise. Scientists have already begun research into larger answers about how COVID-19 is changing drug behavior. Adam Winstock, who founded the Global Drugs Survey and is a consulting addiction psychiatrist at University College London, says early reports indicate use of party drugs is on the decline.
“Most people who use cocaine and MDMA in the U.K. use the drugs in social environments, maybe 10 or 15 times a year,” Winstock told Huffington Post. “It’s probably not that much fun doing half a gram of coke and a couple of pints when you’re stuck at home, as opposed to being at the pub or a club with your mates.”
Supply chain disruption and increasing black market prices could diminish use of party drugs as well. The exception, Winstock added, is marijuana, which is a “pretty good drug for eating up time,” he said.
While a lack of physical support networks could decrease partying, U.S. public health experts worry that same absence could exacerbate the opioid epidemic. More than 2 million Americans struggle with opioid use disorder, Pew Research Center reports, and about 130 people die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Drug Disease and Prevention (CDC).
Assistance like syringe exchange programs and in-person community group meetings have vanished, due to coronavirus social distancing protocol. Harm reduction programs across the country aren’t operating at their previous capacity either, as lack of funding and staff personal safety can’t meet the demand. Add the stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and it becomes clear why experts are worried.
“This changing, very strange world that we’re living through could serve as a trigger for people to return to drug use,” Vital Strategies director of drug use initiatives Daliah Heller told CNN. “And that brings a great potential for overdose with it.”
Official data at the state and federal level for the past couple months isn’t yet available. But drug overdose reports have spiked in multiple parts of the country, as CNN first reported. The Sheriff’s Office in Niagara County, New York announced that drug overdoses from Jan. 1 to April 6 are 35% higher this year than in 2019. Ohio’s Franklin County, where the city of Columbus is located, saw surges in overdose deaths every Friday in April, according to Dr. Anahi Ortiz, Franklin County Coroner. From Jan. 1 to April 15, Ortiz wrote on Facebook, fatal overdoses increased 50% in the county.
“For the month of April alone we saw 62 people die of overdoses,” Ortiz wrote. “In April we saw a younger age group dying of overdoses than in 2019: 25 to 35. In 2019 the majority were 35 and up.
“Much of the cocaine here in Franklin County is cut with fentanyl and sold without people knowing,” she added. “We need to check in with those who use. And, we need to continue to advocate for wiser and better ways of treating those with addictions.”