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Pandemic Disrupts Illegal Drug Trade, Upending Both Product And Profits


For millions of Americans struggling with addiction, COVID-19 has been a nightmare. It's more dangerous now to find illegal drugs and often harder to find treatment, and the scale of the disruption is massive. The U.N. says the pandemic has thrown illegal drug trafficking into chaos in ways not seen since World War II. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's harvest season right now in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the world's biggest heroin supplier. But Angela Me, a researcher with the United Nations, says the pandemic has meant a shortage of field workers.

ANGELA ME: The harvest of opium in Afghanistan involves many people - more than 100,000 people. And much of this labor force comes from other countries. You know, it's a kind of legal migration in a very short period of time.

MANN: Me co-authored a U.N. report which found border restrictions and stay-at-home orders around the world have disrupted nearly every aspect of illegal drug manufacture and distribution from poppy harvest in Asia to meth and heroin labs in Mexico. She says small-scale disruptions in the drug trade are common, but this upheaval is something researchers and law enforcement haven't seen in decades.

ME: Oh, yes. Oh, it's a completely different scale. Here, everything has been disrupted.

MANN: There are also shortages of chemicals needed to manufacture drugs. Uttam Dhillon is acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

UTTAM DHILLON: The drug that we're seeing the most disrupted is methamphetamine - East and West, North and South.

MANN: Cartels in Mexico are also struggling with transportation, Dhillon says, nervous about moving drugs and drug profits.

DHILLON: There's just uncertainty by the drug trafficking organizations. There's a perceived increase in police presence associated with the stay-at-home orders. So you couple that with the border shutdowns, it makes it more difficult to move drugs north and money south.

MANN: According to the DEA, one drug that remains widely available in much of the U.S. is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. That's alarming because the U.N. report points out during past disruptions of the drug trade, many people shifted from heroin to fentanyl, resulting in more overdoses. This kind of thing has happened before. David Courtwright, a historian who studies the illegal drug trade, says many heroin users started taking riskier drugs during World War II.

DAVID COURTWRIGHT: The government started buying up the opium supply even before the United States entered the war in anticipation of military medical needs. When the war broke out, of course, smuggling routes were disrupted. Shipping generally was disrupted. And so it became really hard to get a hold of drugs.

MANN: During this pandemic, drug traffickers are already adapting. The U.N. found more local women working in Afghanistan's poppy fields, for example, replacing workers who couldn't travel. Cartels appear to be shifting from air and land transport to shipments by sea to bring product from Mexico into the U.S. But the DEA's Uttam Dhillon says he hopes some of this disruption can be sustained - a kind of silver lining after the threat of COVID-19 passes.

DHILLON: The challenge for DEA and all of law enforcement is to learn from what was in place at the time during the pandemic and see if we can enhance that so that in the future, we can keep these drugs from coming in. So, for example, additional restrictions through the ports of entry might be something that we want to look at.

MANN: Experts say when drugs are harder to find and more expensive, more people do seek treatment. But finding help can be challenging right now when quarantine rules have restricted access to many clinics and hospitals, often the first point of contact for those struggling with addiction.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLIS ALPS SONG, "YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.