One of the interesting side effects of the huge coronavirus economic shock is the impact it will have on drugs.
Recreational drug use in western countries has steadily been rising since the 1960s, driven by a combination of lifestyle changes, cultural shifts (changing attitudes to drug use) but also supply — in particular the opening up of heroin markets from Asia and cocaine from Latin America.
With the acceleration of globalisation in 2001 so came an acceleration in drug use, especially in the United States, and in the sophistication of those selling it. Now that supply is going to receive a jolt; dark net dealers are being put out of business but “traditional” drug traffickers will also struggle as international trade declines.
One of the arguments made by the more prohibitionist side of the drugs debate was that, while thousands of US troops ended the Vietnam war addicted to opiates, the lack of supply back home solved their addiction problem pretty quickly. We may be about to see if that’s repeated, because even for those drugs manufactured or grown in the UK, distribution is going to be a lot more difficult if Britain follows Italy into a hard lockdown.
I suppose that’s a good thing, except maybe not. I wonder, what if the drugs trade actually helped put a lid on social unrest? Just as a bit of corruption can be quite beneficial for a healthy economy, maybe a certain black and grey economy has some beneficial effects, providing a less-harmful financial route for people who might otherwise have nothing? In other words, illegal drugs gives people who don’t have many job prospects the chance to make money selling to recreational middle-class drug users.
Of course that’s just one aspect of it; a lot of the people they sell to are addicts who wreck the lives of those around them and steal to feed their habit, and the social cost is terrible, but in any situation where you abruptly break off long-established trading networks there are negative and often violent consequences.
This is especially true when the economy is about to crash, and those people who now can’t make a living selling drugs are going to find it very hard to find legitimate work. The only comparison I can think of is the disarming of the Iraqi army in 2003; lots of guys all of a sudden with no money and nothing to do.
In Italy frustration is already growing after weeks of lockdown. I dread to think what London will be like if our enforced inactivity stretches into the hot summer months.