By Thato Mahlangu

Drug markets have been reported to be increasing, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. This grim but unsurprising information is one of the findings of the UN’s World Drug Report which was released on 25 June 2020.

The report reveals how some governments are failing to clamp down on the illicit trade of drugs which have had an adverse impact on communities that rely on treatment.

The researchers argue that the lockdowns, which were instituted globally to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have created opportunities for criminals to market their business while genuine markets suffer a loss.

Change in policy on illegal drugs

Policy changes in countries such as Canada and Uruguay, and other 11 jurisdictions in the US have led to the rise in the illegal use of non-medical drugs like cannabis. The latest policy changes have created an opportunity for cannabis manufacturers to cultivate and sell these products to the masses after the drug was legalised.

“In most of those jurisdictions, cannabis use has risen since its legalisation, although the same trend was observed in other jurisdictions where non-medical use of cannabis was not legalised. In Colorado and Washington, two of the first states to pass legislation, there has been an increase in non-medical use of cannabis among adults, especially in the past few months,” revealed the report.

In order to address the drug problem, policies should strive towards achieving the UN Development Goals, which call for sustainable development, security, and human rights.

Lockdown regulations could be creating an opportunity for the illegal sale of drugs

In South Africa, the ban of cigarettes by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, has been widely criticised by activists and organisations who are advocating for the sale of cigarettes. These groups have argued that the government’s unwillingness to allow for retailers, spaza shops, and other outlets to sell cigarettes would allow for the illegal sale of cigarettes to thrive.

According to the organisation #TakeBackTheTax, an estimated R8-billion, which could be used on building houses and schools, is lost to manufacturers of illegal cigarettes. The organisation says its own investigation has revealed that some of these illegal cigarette manufacturers are evading tax. It has set up a petition to encourage South African lawmakers to act.

The report states that the economic downturn which was caused by the global Covid-19 crisis has the potential to worsen levels of drug production, trafficking, and use. “The crisis may exacerbate the socioeconomic situation of vulnerable groups, who in turn may increasingly resort to illicit activities as a coping mechanism to compensate for the loss of licit income and employment.”

In addition, once restrictions related to Covid-19 are lifted, economic shocks like poverty, business liquidations, unemployment, and retrenchments may also prompt an increase in drug consumption.

The lockdown restrictions may have hard-hitting implications on economies, globally, but we have seen here in South Africa, even internationally, how some businesses and organisations have shut down due to financial challenges, argues the Chronic Poverty Network. It was reported in the media that some of these companies had to retrench staff to cut costs while others closed because of insolvency.

Internationally, it has been discovered that retrenchments can also lead people who have previously abused drugs and alcohol to relapse, says the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Governments can, and should, address the drug problem

According to Ghada Waly, executive director in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, governments should work with youth organisations, activists, and civil society organisations to respond to the drug problem that is plaguing their communities.

By pairing drug-related programmes with development interventions, governments would help eradicate those negative socioeconomic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the past few years, governments have promised to effectively deal with the drug problem but according to the report but that promise has not been kept – making room for the increase of illicit drug trafficking and trading.

The failure of governments in South Africa and abroad to develop policies that would prevent demand has allowed the illicit market to flourish.

The rise in population means a growing market

Changing population patterns are also a factor in the rise of the illegal drug market, according to the report.

“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. Over the past two decades, drug use increased far more rapidly in developing countries than in developed countries. This partly reflects differences in overall population growth over the same period – 7% in developed countries and 28% in developing countries – but also the faster growth of the young population in developing countries.”

The report reveals that between 2008 and 2018, teenagers and young adults around the world account for the largest group of users. There has been a 16% growth in the use of drugs in developing countries while a 10% decline in developed countries was recorded over those years.