COVID-19 is changing the supply chains of illicit drug

Covid-19 global travel restrictions are disrupting the traditional drug trafficking routes and transnational smugglers are now looking for alternatives, including maritime routes.  Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade, reports

Measures implemented by governments to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have led to drug trafficking routes by air being closed, along with drastic reduction or increased interdiction in trafficking routes over land.  

According to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as some drug supply chains have been interrupted, traffickers are looking for alternative routes, including maritime routes, depending on the types of drugs smuggled. 

Synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, tend to be trafficked across continents by air more than other types of drugs.  Restrictions on air travel are, therefore, likely to have a particularly drastic effect on this illegal cargo. 

The bulk of cocaine is trafficked by sea and large cargos have continued to be detected in European ports during the pandemic.

So far, heroin has mostly been trafficked by land.  But due to the pandemic, maritime routes seem to be increasingly used now to traffic heroin as shown by seizures of opiates in the Indian Ocean.

Trafficking in cannabis, however, may not be affected in the same way as that of heroin or cocaine, given that its production often takes place near consumer markets and traffickers are thus less reliant on long, transregional shipments of large quantities of the drug.

Drug production is declining

Restrictions resulting from lockdown could hinder the production of opiates with the key months of harvest in Afghanistan being March to June.  Due to COVID-19, labor force might not be able or willing to travel to areas where opium poppy is grown in the country, which could affect this year’s harvest.

Cocaine production also appears to be impeded in Colombia, as producers are suffering from a shortage of gasoline.  While in Bolivia, COVID-19 is limiting the ability of state authorities to control coca bush cultivation, which could lead to an increase in coca production. 

In Peru, however, a drop in the price of cocaine suggests a reduction in trafficking opportunities. This may discourage coca bush cultivation in the short-term, although the looming economic crisis may lead more farmers to take up coca cultivation in all the major cocaine producing countries.

A decline in international trade in the current pandemic could also lead to shortages in the supply of precursors, vital for the manufacture of heroin as well as for synthetic drugs.  

A limited supply in Mexico, for example, seems to have disrupted the manufacture of methamphetamine and fentanyl, while in Lebanon and Syria, it is affecting the production of captagon. Czechia, on the other hand, expects a shortage of metamphetamine for the same reasons.

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