Is there hope for heroin addicts

At the end of January, one of these passengers was discovered at Munich Airport. He carried 97 sachets full of cocaine in his bowels, a total of one kilogram, imported from South America and destined for a flight to Spain. Then the coronavirus came, the planes stayed on the ground - and with them the drug couriers. Dark as hidden as the illegal drugs business is, it depends to a large extent on the legal market. From the timely delivery of chemicals used to make synthetic narcotic drugs, from the daily flow of goods between which drugs can be hidden. From functioning traffic between countries. And so the tiny virus also brought the powerful drug cartels to their knees a little.

In Mexico, for example, the production of crystal meth apparently stalled because raw materials could no longer be imported in sufficient quantities. Some Colombian drug manufacturers have struggled to get enough gasoline to extract cocaine from the leaves of the coca bush. Above all, however, drug smuggling was hit hard when the borders were closed and around half of the world's population was more or less restricted in their freedom of movement.

Addicts are switching to dangerous alternatives

Consumers are feeling the consequences almost everywhere in the world. "Many countries in all regions of the world have reported shortages of a number of drugs," said the World Drugs Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC on Thursday. Is the limited availability of dangerous substances good news? In the end, will the pandemic have a positive effect on some people's health?

That is probably not the case. The shortage of drugs may turn some casual users into abstainers, but addicts find the scarcity of their addictive substance problematic. Heroin addicts in particular are very likely to switch to more dangerous alternatives. For example, some European countries currently feared that these people would switch to the pain reliever fentanyl. The opioid is at least 50 times stronger than morphine, so it is easy to overdose. In Germany it is sometimes boiled out of pain plasters, sometimes used. The practice is dangerous because the amount of drugs that users receive in this way can hardly be calculated.

Drug addicts have a particularly high risk that a corona infection will be severe

In order to maximize the effect of scarce drugs, the experts warn, users could inject more drugs. Since the pandemic has also limited the possibilities of drug help in some countries, the risk increases that not enough clean syringes are available. Shared syringes, close contacts and poor hygiene in parts of the drug scene, in turn, favor the spread of infectious diseases - which now include Covid-19.

Sars-CoV-2 infection is particularly dangerous for long-term drug addicts. Often they already suffer from lung diseases - triggered by smoking tobacco and other drugs. Cocaine can damage the heart and heroin can damage the immune system. Many addicts around the world suffer from infectious diseases such as AIDS or tuberculosis. In Europe there are now quite a few dependent people of older age. All of these are risk factors for a severe course of Covid-19. At the same time, the disease probably also increases the risk of dying from a heroin overdose. Too large an amount of the drug paralyzes the respiratory muscles, and the breathing problems associated with Covid-19 could favor this emergency.

The report does not bode well for the future either. The UN agency has indications that the drug manufacturers are sitting in overcrowded warehouses because of their logistics problems. As soon as trade routes are open again, the market is likely to be inundated with drugs. Prices are likely to fall and drugs are likely to be relatively pure. This, too, is not necessarily reassuring, because unexpectedly highly concentrated drugs increase the risk of overdoses.

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In the longer term, the UN agency also fears that the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic will worsen the situation of drug addicts. She refers to experiences from the financial crisis of 2008. At that time, impending poverty led more people into the drug trade, consumption increased, while aid programs tended to be scaled back. The authors write that it has long been shown that the costs of treating drug addicts are much lower than the costs that society incurs through untreated addiction problems. It is more important than ever to invest scarce resources in the most effective approaches. This includes the treatment of addicts, but not, for example, the occasional general awareness campaign.

At the same time, the authors warn not to give up cooperation between states. "The drug problem has never been as international as it is today," the report said. Drug cartels work across national borders. An isolated success in one country does not mean that the global market becomes smaller, but that the industry moves to other areas. Problems are not solved in this way, only redistributed.