‘Overdoses go up as supply goes down’: How Coronavirus is Impacting Drug Users

by Hannah Green

19 May 2020

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George* is 24 and lives in the north of England. He’s dependent on heroin, but also takes blues (benzodiazepines) and pills depending on what his dealer has in stock. 

Amidst the current pandemic, drug dependent individuals across the country have been struggling to get hold of the substances they rely on, and support services are having to change how they operate as a result.

Prices of illegal drugs have risen dramatically, with various sources reporting that prices of certain drugs have increased by up to 50%. This rise in prices combined with the scarcity of illegal substances is leading to an increase in unintentional overdoses. 

“It’s stressful because I don’t want to overdose, I just need to take enough to survive,” says George. “But because everything is constantly changing, it’s impossible to get it right”. 

James*, a drug dealer in London, explains that some strains of cannabis have doubled in price. “3.5g of weed was £30, but now dealers are charging at least £60”.

Barry Eveleigh, a service manager for Kaleidoscope, a charity which provides a range of services supporting people and families affected by substance use, reports that in the last six weeks the price of heroin has doubled.

In Powys, Wales, where he works, Eveleigh says that “a £10 bag is now £20 and is not as strong, which suggests that purity is being compromised as heroin is being cut with who knows what”. 

‘They’re using lockdown as an excuse to make more money.’

But while in some areas of the country drugs have become harder to get hold of, putting dealers in difficult situations in the process, in others it seems dealers are using the current crisis as an excuse to increase prices and exploit customers. 

Chantel, a customer in York who buys drugs regularly, has also noticed a change. “On pills and stuff they aren’t doing deals anymore and they’re blaming lockdown, but I think they’re just using lockdown as an excuse to make more money.”  

There are suggestions that demand may have changed because of lockdown, with the types of drugs casual users are taking changing to reflect the current situation. 

“Most people aren’t using coke or ket[amine] right now because there are no parties,” James explains, “but more people are using bud (cannabis) and blues (benzodiazepines), probably because everyone is so stressed out’’. 

‘Overdoses go up as supply goes down.’

Kaleidoscope campaigns and communications officer Alisha Arthur explains that the charity is “seeing changes to drug patterns, availability and supply along with differences in rural and urban areas’’. 

What’s happening as a result is that drug dependent individuals are not being able to get hold of what they need and being forced to go cold turkey. 

Eveleigh lays out the dangers of this:

Paradoxically, overdoses go up as supply goes down and the potential for harm is greatly increased during shortfalls. People use drugs they are less familiar with based on availability, and this makes dosing less reliable.”

According to Kieran*, a drug dealer in Scarborough, ‘‘a lot of people are turning to the dark web – it’s still the normal price on there’’. However, this move reiterates the concerns raised by Kaleidoscope; when people start using unfamiliar drugs or new strains, it’s incredibly difficult to get the correct dosing. 

These fears prompted George, who was not in contact with his local drug services before lockdown, to reach out. “I only got in contact because overdosing really scares me […] I didn’t really have this problem before” he says. “The lady I spoke to was really nice. She explained all the services they offer, which I had no idea about.”

But it’s not just dosing that’s an issue. According to Arthur, one of biggest concerns during lockdown has been people using alone in isolation, which increases the risk of overdose. 

“We’ve been conducting outreach to make sure vulnerable drug users have a safe and in-date supply of Naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose,” she says. 

Kaleidoscope CEO Martin Blakeborough, explains how their service has had to adapt to the lockdown restrictions. “Many of our non-clinical bases, recovery hubs and so on, closed their doors on 18 March.’’ 

As a result, Blakeborough says that the charity’s “primary focus has become the delivery of prescribing services, provision for prison leavers and individuals at risk, and maintaining the operation of our needle exchanges. All other support is being provided online and via telephone”. 

‘No one is going anywhere so we can’t get the usual supply.’

Heightened border restrictions and reduced air travel means it’s increasingly difficult for drugs to enter the country. “It has changed massively,” says James. “No one can get it into the country and the stuff we are getting isn’t as good’’. 

Many police forces are reporting increases in the number of arrests for drug related offences, which has also meant drugs are not as widely available. 

Arthur expresses concern that those who are dependent on heroin may struggle to get hold of what they need to avoid withdrawal. “In urban area’s like Newport, I believe heroin is still available,” she says. “But transactions are taking place outside of the city, as under lockdown conditions this activity is far more visible amidst an increasing police presence”. 

Meanwhile, James is struggling to get his usual supplies. ‘‘County lines drug dealers are getting busted,” he explains. “They stick out like a sore thumb now no one is going anywhere so we can’t get the usual supply’’. 

“It’s hard having to tell regulars we don’t have their gear,” he continues, “especially when I know they rely on it and might get really ill without it”. 

‘People aren’t going out to get fresh needles.’

As a result, some drug users are starting to panic. “Some people with drug dependency problems might try to stockpile their drug of choice,” explains Eveleigh. “Apart from adding to shortages of the drug, this creates several risks, such as using more of a substance than you planned to over a period of time, or worse, using too much in one go and overdosing.’’ 

Kaleidoscope has seen just 30% of the referrals they received this time last year. “This may be due to the fact that people aren’t aware that support is available under current conditions,” Eveleigh speculates, “or because people are perhaps relying on drugs and alcohol increasingly as a coping mechanism”. 

He is also seeing a troubling change in activity in Powys:

“There’s been a drop in the use of needle exchange. Last year between March and April we gave out 420 injecting packs. For the same period this year that figure has dropped to 170. This means […] people aren’t going out to get fresh needles, which potentially could lead to an increase in the sharing of needles and thus an increase in the transmission of the Hepatitis C virus.”

He adds:  “We’ve seen some of our heroin users shift from injecting heroin to injecting codeine tablets, which carries high risks of blood clots, swelling, ulcers and skin infections.’’

‘I really want to get clean when all this is over.’

Dealers, on the other hand, are being more careful. James says that he is adapting to some social distancing guidelines and is wearing gloves and a face mask to all transactions, along with disinfecting money and not hanging about for “the usual chit-chat”. 

Kieran is also taking precautions. ‘‘I stand a few metres away from them, they throw me the cash, I count it and then throw them the gear,” he says. “We don’t break any rules and I always wear gloves.” 

Despite the challenges coronavirus is presenting, Blakeborough stresses that some of the changes Kaleidoscope has introduced during lockdown have yielded positive results for their clients. “Many of our service users are thriving and want us to maintain much of the online support we have introduced when things return to normal,” he says.  

With his new found support-system, George is also positive about the future. “I really want to get clean when all of this is over,” he says. “It’s made me realise this isn’t how I want to live my life. I know the support is there now”.

*Identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.

Hannah Green is a freelance writer and activist.

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