Focus on research into COVID-19 impact on drug use

Image: Professor Dietze, Burnet Institute Program Director, Behaviours and Health Risks

The critical importance of surveillance and research to assess the impacts of COVID‐19 interventions on drug use and related harms in Australia is underscored by Burnet Institute’s Professor Paul Dietze in an editorial published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

Professor Dietze, Burnet Institute Program Director, Behaviours and Health Risks, and co-author Dr Amy Peacock from the University of New South Wales expect people who regularly use illicit drugs to be disproportionately affected by the COVID‐19 physical and social restrictions.

“These impacts will likely vary as a function of the intensity of measures and their timing and by sub‐population, with those experiencing problematic use and other drivers of disadvantage (e.g. homelessness, unemployment) most likely to experience negative effects,” the authors write.

“The impacts of COVID‐19 interventions on drug use and related harms need to be determined through surveillance and research, not only to inform adjustments to drug policy and clinical practice during the immediate COVID‐19 crisis but also into the longer term as restrictions are lifted and societies move into the post‐COVID‐19 era.”

The editorial addresses a broad range of issues, including the prospect that:

  • demand may drive shifts towards more easily transported, cheaper and higher potency substitutes for heroin or other opioids;
  • physical distancing measures may make drug dealing harder to conceal, requiring a greater reliance on online markets, social media to source drugs which carry some risk of detection but also potentially of contracting COVID-19;
  • the absence of a supply may lead to withdrawal, and increasingly desperate attempts to procure drugs, which may result in increased likelihood of arrest or other legal consequences;
  • cessation or reductions in use may also produce a lesser tolerance that may present as a risk for overdose if drug supply rebounds abruptly after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and
  • as restrictions are eventually lifted, markets may rebound and return to pre-COVID-19 levels.

“The current situation has profound implications for illicit drug supply, procurement and use practices, as well as prevention, treatment and harm reduction responses – both now in the midst of the pandemic and in the coming years as the ramifications of actions to reduce COVID‐19 transmission unfold,” the authors said.

Read the editorial in full here.

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