The impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on drug use in Europe

The impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on drug use in Europe

The European report raises the alarm on public health risks due to the hyperavailability and use of a wide range of substances, often of high potency or purity

(Photo: University of South Australia) the use of amphetamines and MDMA has decreased, there has been a growth in the consumption of alcohol and psychedelic drugs, in addition to a new trend in the use of benzodiazepines. These are the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the European Drug Report 2021: trends and developments of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) on data from 29 countries (EU 27, Turkey and Norway). Here are the main points of the European drug report.

Changes since Covid-19

The use of party pills has obviously decreased. Data from online surveys of self-reported drug use suggest increased alcohol consumption and experimentation with psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and 2-Cb (2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine), and dissociative drugs such as ketamine. "The use of MDMA and amphetamine has decreased because the recreational settings have stopped. Preferences have shifted towards more hallucinogenic drugs for home use. Now we will see how the data changes with the gradual opening of the recreational sector, "said Tim Surmont, a science analyst at EMCDDA.

Substances such as LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms and ketamine are available throughout Europe, but are poorly monitored, still limiting the ability to understand exactly on what scale they are used and what impact they have on public health.

The biggest concern, however, is related to the new trend in terms of benzodiazepine use. These substances, useful for therapeutic purposes in anxiolytic drugs and tranquilizers, have been widely used both because of their high availability and low cost, sometimes starting from attempts to cure mental health problems resulting from the pandemic. Although some of these medicines are legal and accessible medically, some studies point to their risks of prolonged use.

Evergreen and new income

An estimated 83 million people among 15 to 64 years of age (28.9% of the population) in the European Union have used illicit drugs at least once in their life. The most commonly tried drug is cannabis, but levels of use differ markedly between European countries, ranging from around 4% of adults in Malta to 45% in France.

Cannabis consumption remains stable at high levels, but the increase in Thc content raises health concerns. The EMCDDA reports a health alarm related to cannabis adulterated with extremely potent synthetic cannabinoids. The cannabis resin sold in Europe is in fact now more potent than before, with a Thc content on average between 20% and 28%, almost double that of plant cannabis. Close monitoring of this area is necessary to detect changes in cannabis problems: the number of those entering for the first time in a treatment to cure cannabis addictions is in fact increasing.

Since 2015, around 400 new psychoactive substances previously reported have been detected in Europe each year. In 2020, 46 new psychoactive substances (NPS) were reported for the first time, bringing the total number monitored by the EMCDDA to 830. These include new cannabinoids and synthetic opiates.

Interrupted services and little gender issue

This year's report identifies the continuing and growing challenges for public health. They are mainly due to the continuous availability and potency or purity of the substances, but also to poly-drug use.

Overdose deaths caused by opiates are increasing, highlighting the need to develop more services. At the same time, the number of those who try to undergo rehabilitation treatments for the first time is increasing.

Due to Covid-19 prevention measures, the ability to manage patients was reduced in the first half of 2020. Increased use of telemedicine since June 2020 contributed to the reported reduction in treatment demand, but it has also allowed services to continue meeting the needs of their customers during the pandemic. Treatment services in prisons also report service interruptions due to social distancing and restrictions on external service providers.

For all the drugs studied by the European Observatory, those who receive the treatments are mostly men (about 80%), a sign that addiction problems are much higher among the European male population. Similarly, some organizations have stressed the need to rethink the traditional treatment program, also adapting it to the gender issue. Studies have also shown that women are much more capable of getting out of drug addiction and much faster than men. "It is essential, in all areas of social, health and safety policies, to develop integrated and evidence-based responses as required by the new EU drug strategy," said Alexis Goosdeel, director of the Emcdda.

The Italian situation

Even in Italy the figures are not far from the European average and the trends are confirmed. As already stated by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, in particular by the Department for Drug Policies, the diffusion of consumption methods that turn towards synthetic substances and multipurpose is consolidated, together with more traditional forms of consumption.

In our country there is one of the highest cases of new cannabis users. On the European average, Italy is the fourth country for seizure of marijuana plantations and around 21 tons of resin and 23 tons of pure cannabis have also been confiscated. Together with the other three most populous countries of the European Union (Germany, Spain, France), it accounts for over two thirds (68%) of opiate users.

To prevent and identify vulnerability and occasional use of substances with the aim of reducing the time of access to treatment, especially among the youngest, the Ministers of Education, Health and the Economy have currently assigned the resources of the Fund for the prevention of drug addiction, for a value total of 4 million euros. Furthermore, last April, the experimental projects in the field of drug addiction prevention were announced, aimed above all at interventions in lower and upper secondary schools.

The European effort

Last December 2020, the Council of the European Union approved the EU Drug Strategy 2021-2025, which aims to protect and improve health, social stability and safety, contributing to the awareness of the European public.

"With the new security and drug strategies, our Member States will have solid tools to deal with this emergency through a balanced approach", assured Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs .

To respond to the critical developments in the European drug markets, the period of the strategy compared to the previous one has been reduced from 7 to 5 years, in the hope of being able to more readily counteract future changes that may arise.

“We are witnessing a dynamic and adaptive drug market, resilient to the restrictions connected with Covid-19“, highlighted Goosdeel. During the pandemic, however, the ability of the international community to guarantee access to controlled medicines was put to the test, while organized crime and drug traffickers adapted to travel restrictions and the closure of borders, managing to address the disruption of international transport.

Although retail drug trafficking was conditioned during the early lockdowns, drug sellers and buyers adapted by increasing the use of encrypted messaging services, social applications, online sites and mail services and home delivery. This indicates that a long-term impact of the pandemic could be the further digitization of drug markets, further promoting its growth.

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