Drug Trafficking
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This article is written by Kushang, from Himachal Pradesh National Law University (HPNLU). This article talks about the impact of COVID-19 on illicit drug supply. It also discusses the report of the UNODC on production, trafficking, and consumption of illicit drugs. 

Table of Contents


The coronavirus has affected all the sectors of the economy. It has affected the lifestyle of the people. The lockdown, social distancing, and movement restrictions have affected our day to day life. But did COVID-19 have any impact on non-social elements like illicit drugs? The answer to this question was given by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on June 26 marking the occasion of World Drugs day.  Established in 1997, the UNODC assists the member states in their struggle against illicit drugs, crime, and terrorism. The role of UNODC is very important in fighting the drug mafia around the world. The report of the UNODC has been made on the analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on illicit drug supply. Illicit drugs refer to highly addictive and illegal substances like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, etc. These drugs carry a high risk. These drugs are very harmful to life which can be understood by the fact that it is responsible for over 7,50,000 deaths per year. The UNODC has been constantly working towards preventing illicit drug trade and usage. It affects various countries all around the world. Thus, it is important to understand the report of UNODC on illicit drug supply during the time of COVID-19.

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Why is it in the news

The report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is in the news as it states that the movement restriction levied due to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to an initial statistical reduction in drug supply, but the change in term of supply in East and Southern Asia region will not be affected. Thus, it can be said that COVID-19 would not affect the illicit drug supply in the world. The change will be very minute and thus, supply will not be affected. 

What does the UNODC report say

The UNODC report was released on the occasion of International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking or World Drug Day on June 26. The report stated various points related to the impact of COVID-19 on illicit drug production, drug trafficking, and drug consumption.

The report said that the fluctuation in drug seizures, usage, arrest, and drug death would not have a direct or indirect correlation with the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 on illicit drug production, trafficking, and consumption is given below.  

Impact of COVID-19 on illicit drug production

The four largest drug markets are cannabis, cocaine, opiates (mainly heroin), and synthetic drugs, each with a different geographical spread. These 4 products production has been affected by the pandemic-

  • The COVID-19 has led to restrictions on the movement of the people. People have to stay at home and hence they do not travel to their work. In such situations, the production of drugs has also been hampered. Afghanistan is among the top producers of opium in the world. The opium harvest months are from March to June. The period falls in COVID-19 crisis time and people are not able to travel and work in the fields due to restrictions and fear of the pandemic. This has led to reduced opium production.
  • International trade has been affected by the pandemic which has led to a shortage of supply of acetic anhydride, a precursor vital to the manufacture of heroin, which is not produced in Afghanistan. This may result in less heroin production.
  • Countries like Myanmar had harvested the opium before the pandemic but they are not able to find buyers due to the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19.
  • The enforcement authorities have become active in Columbia and this has led to reduced cocaine production. This is also due to the unavailability of gasoline which is necessary for cocaine production. Thus, the production of cocaine suffers due to the pandemic.
  • The production is facing a crisis in the short run but a resurgence is possible in the future due to the economic problems that the farmers will face.
  • In the production of synthetic drugs, many regions like Mexico are limiting the production due to the unavailability of precursors for producing these drugs. This is also due to the reduced trade between countries during the pandemic. It is important to note that synthetic drugs can be produced by any country however, the chemical precursors are required for its production.

Impact on drug trafficking

The organized drug trafficking groups had to find various ways to cope with the restrictions imposed by the countries due to the pandemic. In the past, also these groups had adapted to changed circumstances and are still finding new ways to supply drugs to different countries. They are resorting to methods like changing the way of trafficking and stocking the drugs to survive in these difficult times. The impacts of COVID-19 on drug trafficking are-

  • The trafficking of the drug has been severely affected due to movement restrictions imposed during the pandemic. The borders were closed and thus, an important passage for drug trafficking was closed. Heroin is trafficked by land, cocaine mostly by sea, and synthetic drugs by air. The biggest impact has been on countries where most of the drugs were trafficked through the air. The supply of drugs by air has been completely disrupted due to air restrictions imposed by various countries. The trafficking of synthetic drug to countries like Japan, Korea, and Australia has been affected to a great extent.
  • There have been signs of increased usage of maritime routes for drug trafficking. The increased seizure of opium in the Indian ocean indicates trafficking through these routes to Europe.
  • The border control has become strict and thus has reduced the drug trade through the borders of the country. For instance, the trafficking of heroin from Mexico to the USA has become much more difficult than it was in the pre-pandemic era.
  • The cocaine is now being trafficked through sea routes. Strict measures have disrupted their air and land trafficking. They are directly being trafficked from South America to Europe through the sea routes. Cocaine trafficking is still being carried out.
  • The reduced trafficking of the drugs has led to the stockpiling of the drugs. This can be inferred by the fall in the prices of drugs. This also means that once restrictions are over, there would be an over-supply of drugs and can also lead to an overdose of drugs.
  • There has been an increased demand for cannabis. There are indications that the lockdown measures in Europe may lead to an increase in demand for cannabis products, which could intensify drug trafficking activities from North Africa to Europe in the future. However, the cannabis supply will not be affected as much as heroin or cocaine as they are produced mostly near the consumer markets.
  • The response of Member States to countering drug trafficking may also, to some degree, be affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In countries with limited law enforcement capacity, enforcing measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 may divert resources away from counter-narcotics efforts, making drug trafficking and production less risky for organized criminal groups and providing a conducive environment for illicit activities. Moreover, there are indications that drug trafficking groups are adapting their strategies in order to continue their operations, and that some have started to exploit the situation so as to enhance their image among the population by providing services, in particular to the vulnerable.

Impact on drug consumption

Countries all over the world have reported that the pandemic has affected the availability of drugs at the basic level. Although there are countries that have not been so drastically affected due to relaxed measures. It can be said that the economic effects of COVID-19 would have a long-lasting impact on drug consumption and the method of consumption. Key impacts on the consumption of drugs are –

  • Many countries reported drug shortages at the retail level. There is a shortage of drug supply which eventually affects its consumption. The shortage has led to decreased consumption, however, people have started consuming harmful domestically-produced substances. Drug users are resorting to various alternatives. Some countries in Europe have warned that heroin users may switch to substances such as fentanyl and its derivatives. An increase in the use of pharmaceutical products such as benzodiazepines and buprenorphine has also been reported, to the extent that their price has doubled in some areas. 
  • The shortage of drugs has also led to increased use of injecting drugs. This can be very harmful as they can lead to various risks of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Injecting drugs also carry the risk of drug overdose.
  • Some countries have reported that the activities of organizations providing support to people who use drugs have been severely affected. 
  • The economic problems caused by the COVID-19 can change the drug consumption level. The change however would be for the worse. People who lost their jobs are more vulnerable to enter the illicit drug trade sector to make a living. They can enter the drug trafficking business due to the lack of finances.

Situation in India

The situation in India with regard to illicit drugs is not good. As per the report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), India is one of the major hubs of the illicit drug trade in the world. The drug trade ranges from cannabis to drugs like tramadol and methamphetamine. India lies in the middle of the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle. These are the two major illicit drug production regions in the world. Golden Crescent lies in the west and Golden Triangle lies in the east of India.

The Golden Triangle

This region consists of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. This is one of the oldest routes used for trafficking drugs to Europe and North America. It is Southeast Asia’s main opium-producing region and thus India has very easy access to illicit drugs through this region.

The Golden Crescent

This region comprises Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. This lies on the west side of India and is among the largest suppliers of drugs in India. The illicit drugs from this region enter India through Punjab borders, the coast of Mumbai, and other border areas.

India was in the fourth position in terms of seizure of opium in 2018. It was in the 12th position in the world on heroin seizure. India witnessed a massive spike in narcotic business after the COVID-19 restriction was eased. The cannabis is grown in India in the hilly regions of Andhra Pradesh. There have been increased illicit drug seizures after the lockdown was eased in the country. There has been a sharp rise in the smuggling of drugs. People are resorting to imports of illicit drugs. Thus, India is also involved in the illicit drug trade on a large basis. Although lockdown had imposed certain restrictions, the illegal practices have regained their pace. This indicates the report of the UNODC that the coronavirus had little impact on the illicit drug trade.


The report states that the COVID-19 did not have much effect on the illicit drug supply in the world. The people involved in such trade are resorting to new methods. The way of trafficking the drugs have changed. The pandemic has led to changes but they are not very significant. This is due to challenges like limited control over the golden triangle and fall in prices of illicit drugs which would increase the supply due to affordability. The restrictions on land and air have led to the preference of maritime routes for drug trafficking. South Asian countries like India are most affected by these drug trade. This is due to the presence of two major regions of illicit drug production known as the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent. The production of drugs has been affected in the short run but it is predicted that it would resurge in the future. The antisocial elements like this require efforts from all countries. The strength of these networks can be understood by the fact that it has not been affected drastically by one of the most difficult times of our generation- COVID-19.



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