Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Drug abuse amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Rising unemployment, lack of opportunities, restrictions on drugs amid the pandemic will make people engage in harmful patterns of drug use, suffer drug use disorders and turn to illicit activities linked to drugs – either production or transport.
By IASToppers
July 01, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Rise in numbers
  • Reasons for the rise
  • Effects of COVID-19 on drug use
  • Lack of serious efforts
  • Conclusion

Drug abuse amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fragility of our strained health systems and the stretched social safety nets. It may more people to substance abuse or leave them vulnerable to involvement in drug trafficking and related crime. After the 2008 financial crisis, drug users sought out cheaper synthetic substances and patterns of use shifted towards injecting drugs, while governments reduced budgets to deal with drug-related problems.

Rise in numbers:

  • Cannabis is the most used drug globally, and opioids are the most harmful.
  • An estimated 192 million people used cannabis in 2018, and 58 million people used opioids in 2018.
  • More than 11 million people inject drugs, while 1.4 million PWID are living with HIV, 5.5 million with hepatitis C and 1.2 million are living with both hepatitis C and HIV.
  • Non-medical use of synthetic opioids fuels public health crises in West, Central and North Africa, and North America; fuelled by tramadol (narcotic-like pain reliever).
  • Other quite popular drugs (recreational drugs) are cocaine, and the most used ATS in South-East Asia are amphetamines and methamphetamine.
  • The expansion of illicit trade in such substances and the high profits generated by that trade poses an increasing threat to security and health worldwide.

Reasons for the rise:

1. Population growth and rise in demand:

  • Drug use around the world has been on the rise, in terms of both overall numbers and the proportion of the world’s population that uses drugs.
  • In 2009, the estimated 210 million users represented 4.8 % of the global population aged 15‒64, compared with the estimated 269 million users in 2018, or 5.3 % of the population.

2. Urbanization:

  • Drug use is higher in urban areas than in rural areas, in both developed and developing countries.
  • The mass movement of people from the countryside to towns and cities, partially explains the overall rise in drug use.

3. Purchasing power:

  • Increasing wealth is linked to rising drug use, but the poorest suffer the largest burden of disorders.
  • Worldwide, drug use is more widespread in developed countries than in developing countries.
  • Drugs such as cocaine are even more firmly associated with the wealthier parts of the world.

4. Complex Drug markets:

  • Drug markets are becoming increasingly complex.
  • Plant-based substances such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin have been joined by hundreds of synthetic drugs, many not under international control.
  • There has also been a rapid rise in the non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs.
  • The new forms of drugs include the use of painkillers and sedatives, widely misused for recreation purposes, and available in online pharmacies.

Effects of COVID-19 on drug use:

1. A shift in drug use pattern:

  • COVID-19 pandemic will have a far-reaching effect on drug markets.
  • Some producers could be forced to seek out new ways to manufacture drugs as restrictions on movement constrict access to precursors and essential chemicals.
  • Following the economic crisis of 2008, some users began seeking out cheaper synthetic substances, and patterns of use shifted towards injecting drugs.
  • The biggest impact on drug trafficking is expected in countries where large quantities are smuggled on commercial airliner flights, so new routes will be discovered to smuggle drugs.
  • Rising unemployment and lack of opportunities will make it more likely that poor and disadvantaged people engage in harmful patterns of drug use, suffer drug use disorders and turn to illicit activities linked to drugs – either production or transport.

2. Impacts on Vulnerable groups:

  • Vulnerable and marginalised groups, youth, women and the poor will be harmed the most.
  • One out of three drug users is a woman but women represent only one out of five people in treatment.
  • People in prison settings, minorities, immigrants and displaced people will face barriers to treatment due to discrimination and stigma.
  • The risks and consequences of drug use are worsened by poverty, limited opportunities for education and jobs, stigma and social exclusion, which deepens inequalities and will move away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

3. Drug use disorder:

  • While wealthier segments of society have a higher prevalence of drug use, people who are socially and economically disadvantaged are more likely to develop drug use disorders.
  • According to the World Drug Report 2020, only one out of eight people who need drug-related treatment receive it.
  • Some 35.6 million people suffered from drug use disorders in 2018. Poverty, limited education and social marginalization may increase the risk of drug use disorders and exacerbate the consequences.
  • The relationship between drugs and violence is complex. The limited data at the global level show that intoxication may be a significant factor in homicide.

Lack of serious efforts:

  • Governments have repeatedly pledged to work together to address the challenges posed by the world drug problem, in the SDGs.
  • The Commission on Narcotic Drugs adopted the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on strengthening actions at the national, regional and international levels to accelerate the implementation of joint commitments made to address and counter the world drug problem.
  • But the ground data indicate that support has fallen over time, imperilling government commitment as well as regional and global coordination.
  • Development assistance dedicated to drug control fell by some 90% between 2000-2017, and there is little evidence of international donor attention to this priority.
  • Assistance for alternative development — creating viable, licit forms of income to enable poor farmers to stop growing illicit opium poppy or coca — also remains very low.


Leaving no one behind requires greater investment in evidence-based prevention, as well as treatment and other services for drug use disorders, HIV, hepatitis C and other infections. We need international cooperation to increase access to controlled drugs for medical purposes, while preventing diversion and abuse, and to strengthen law enforcement action to dismantle the transnational organised crime networks.

Health-centred, rights-based and gender-responsive approaches to drug use and related diseases deliver better public health outcomes. Hence, there is a need for drug strategies addressing the country-level, as well as regional challenges.

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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