Coronavirus is exacerbating inequality, even among drug users as supplies dry up

Even during coronavirus, the parallel markets on the dark web continue to offer every type of drug and medicine imaginable. British customers account for a lot of that activity at the moment. In fact, according to a pan-European report, Brits account for most of it.

It is that old staple, cannabis, that is attracting new buyers to shadow market vendors, and suppliers are offering a range of incentives and assurances to ensure minimal disruption to their trade.

Messages from suppliers read, “Due to recent global events we have reduced our minimum order so everyone can enjoy themselves during times of quarantine.”

Others are keen to point out that it’s business as usual. That’s an understatement – sales have increased significantly. According to the report, a dark net market called Cannazon estimates that 1.6 million metric tonnes, worth €4.3m, were supplied over three months, mainly by Dutch vendors to the British market.

The increase in sales doesn’t necessarily mean individuals are using more cannabis, however. Instead it could indicate some stockpiling to mitigate concerns they have about future supply problems.

This virtual market contrasts with what appears to be happening with the physical market in the UK. Face to face dealing is getting risky as lockdown makes this activity visible even when dealers adopt disguises such as health worker uniforms or jogging clothes. This risk is reflected in price increases for most drugs, including cannabis, and could explain why some users have turned to the dark web, as prices are competitive, supply is assured and packing discrete, albeit you must plan rather than impulsively buy drugs.

Another factor confirmed by the report is that sales of ecstasy have plummeted as social isolation hampers the effect that these types of drugs are used for. No point using a drug that you can party with when there’s no party to go to.

All this may seem trivial or of no consequence but of course it isn’t. These supply and demand changes have a very real impact on individuals and those around them. The affluent can nimbly switch from the physical drug market to the dark web as they have the resources and ability to do this. Those that don’t have the time, money or ability to do this are left with whatever they can get. This group will include those sleeping rough or prisoners. Both are known to be likely to use synthetic cannabis, which bears no resemblance to organic cannabis in chemical composition or effect. China has been a significant supplier of synthetic cannabis, and Covid-19 has reduced the supply of these type of drugs, leaving some homeless people turning to a combination of alcohol and heroin instead.

The way into using drugs, and from addiction to recovery, is strikingly influenced by inequality. This explains why so many people use drugs but only some become dependent. People learn very quickly that drugs provide temporary inoculation against the cruel hand they’ve been dealt in life. Access to residential rehabilitation is limited when you can’t afford to pay the fees or spend time away from your zero-hour contract that your family rely on to survive. Some treatment providers have adapted to the Covid-19 crisis and are offering intensive day rehabilitation, but at a cost of £3,000 this will be beyond the reach of many who need it.

So, if you thought inequality was a problem prior to this pandemic, that will look like a heady nirvana compared to what is being unleashed on those furthest down the social hierarchy. As ever, those with greatest need receive the least in the way of support, a constant that’s cruelly stubborn to change.

Ian Hamilton is associate professor of addiction at the University of York