Drug seizures plummeted early in the COVID-19 pandemic, then climbed once lockdowns lifted

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Marijuana and methamphetamine seizures reached low point in April 2020 and peaked in August 2020, pointing to possible changes in drug supply and use

Law enforcement seizures of drugs, particularly marijuana and methamphetamine, dropped at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, then increased significantly in the following months–exceeding pre-pandemic seizure rates and providing clues about the impact of the crisis on substance use, according to a new study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The research was conducted as part of the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), which uses real-time surveillance to detect early signals of potential drug epidemics. NDEWS is led by a team of researchers at the University of Florida, New York University, and Florida Atlantic University, and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Early research about how the pandemic has affected patterns of substance use has yielded mixed results. Some sources suggest that overall drug use has increased, while others point to a drop in use and availability of certain drugs. During the same period, multiple studies show an increase in overdoses.

Given conflicting information about changes in drug use, availability, and overdoses after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NDEWS researchers examined trends in drug seizures recorded in the National High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program’s Performance Management Process database to gain additional insight as to how the pandemic and its associated restrictions have shifted drug use.

“Although seizure data is not the most robust indicator of the prevalence of drug use, it does serve as an indicator of drug supply and availability,” said study author Joseph Palamar, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, an affiliated researcher with the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR) at NYU School of Global Public Health, NDEWS co-investigator and chair of the NDEWS Scientific Advisory Group. “For example, fewer seizures, or lower volumes of drugs seized, can reflect a disruption of drug supply chains.”

The researchers looked at trends in 29,574 seizures of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl within five geographic areas: Washington/Baltimore, Chicago, Ohio, New Mexico, and North Florida. They examined the number and total weight of seizures from March 2019, a year before the pandemic began in the U.S., through September 2020, six months into the pandemic.

They detected a sharp decrease in drug seizures–particularly marijuana and methamphetamine–in March and April 2020, when stay-at-home orders were put into place across the country. After reaching a low point in April, the number of seizures then increased through the remainder of the spring and summer when social distancing measures became more relaxed, peaking in August 2020. The weight of drugs seized by law enforcement also significantly increased after April, driven by an increase in volume of marijuana seizures.

Notably, the August peaks in the number and volume of seizures for marijuana and methamphetamine were higher than a year earlier. However, it is unknown whether the peaks represent greater availability of the drugs or whether law enforcement officials were merely “catching up” after several months of delayed seizures.

The researchers did not detect significant shifts in seizures involving cocaine, heroin, or fentanyl during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, although seizures involving fentanyl slowly increased in a stable manner over the two years independent of the pandemic.

The study authors noted that more research is warranted to determine the extent to which these seizures reflect changes in drug use. While decreases in seizures, for instance, likely indicate lower availability, it is also possible that fewer seizures may have indicated less drug law enforcement activity during the early months of the pandemic.

“Future research should harmonize data on seizures with other studies of drug use, availability, and overdoses in order to determine the most accurate picture of drug use trends during the pandemic,” added Linda B. Cottler, PhD, MPH, FACE, of the University of Florida and principal investigator of NDEWS.

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In addition to Palamar and Cottler, study authors include Austin Le of NYU and Thomas H. Carr of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Drug Policy and Prevention and the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. The research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (U01DA051126 and R01DA044207).

About CDUHR

The mission of the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR) is to end the HIV and HCV epidemics in drug using populations and their communities by conducting transdisciplinary research and disseminating its findings to inform programmatic, policy, and grass roots initiatives at the local, state, national, and global levels. CDUHR is a Core Center of Excellence funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant #P30 DA011041). It is the first center for the socio-behavioral study of substance use and HIV in the United States and is located at the NYU School of Global Public Health. For more information, visit http://www.cduhr.org.

About NYU Langone Health

NYU Langone Health is a world-class, patient-centered, integrated academic medical center, known for its excellence in clinical care, research, and education. Included in the 260+ locations throughout the New York area are six inpatient locations: Tisch Hospital, its flagship acute-care facility in Manhattan; Rusk Rehabilitation, ranked as one of the top 10 rehabilitation programs in the country; NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital, a dedicated inpatient orthopedic hospital in Manhattan with all musculoskeletal specialties ranked top 10 in the country; Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, a comprehensive pediatric hospital, also in Manhattan, supporting a full array of children’s health services; NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, a full-service teaching hospital and level 1 trauma center located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and NYU Langone Hospital–Long Island, a full-service teaching hospital and level 1 trauma center located in Nassau County on Long Island. Also part of NYU Langone Health is the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center; NYU Grossman School of Medicine, which since 1841 has trained thousands of physicians and scientists who have helped to shape the course of medical history; and NYU Long Island School of Medicine. For more information, go to nyulangone.org, and interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

About NYU School of Global Public Health

At the NYU School of Global Public Health (NYU GPH), we are preparing the next generation of public health pioneers with the critical thinking skills, acumen, and entrepreneurial approaches necessary to reinvent the public health paradigm. Devoted to employing a nontraditional, interdisciplinary model, NYU GPH aims to improve health worldwide through a unique blend of global public health studies, research, and practice. The School is located in the heart of New York City and extends to NYU’s global network on six continents. Innovation is at the core of our ambitious approach, thinking and teaching. For more, visit: http://publichealth.nyu.edu/

Media Contact
Rachel Harrison
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2021.108580

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