Pandemic supply shocks spill into the drug market, says Security Service

COVID-19 lockdown saw imported drug supplies stopping completely, with drug seizures from entertainment events stopping entirely

Travel restrictions and supply chain shocks forced Maltese organised crime groups to adapt to new realities, according to the Malta Security Service (MSS).

The publicity-shy agency gave an overview of the local drugs market in its annual report for 2020, tabled in parliament last week.

In its report, the security service explains that the mitigation efforts introduced at the start of the pandemic forced organised crime groups (OCGs) to rethink their trafficking methods.

“The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed lifestyles. The virus, as well as a variety of measures taken by authorities around the world to control the pandemic, affected all aspects of our lives. Like what happened in other countries, Maltese authorities introduced a number of restrictions on travel that affected the modus operandi of OCGs when trafficking contraband and other illegal items.”

A separate government study on local drug markets identified several trade routes used by suppliers to smuggle drugs into Malta. Heroin of Afghan origin is imported through Turkey, North Africa or Western European countries, while cocaine is smuggled to Malta mostly through Spain.

Synthetic drugs like MDMA, ecstasy and amphetamine are imported from other European countries, particularly Italy and the Netherlands.

“A number of routes and methods exist for drug importation and to bring in contraband. Since the drug market was sometimes use legal markets to hide products, with the pandemic measures, some routes became problematic for these OCGs to import products into Malta. This is why they had to adapt to the new reality by using other methods,” the MSS said.

“Restrictions imposed by local authorities on where importers order their product, oftentimes from Europe, also caused supply problems. Despite drugs being available, strict measures meant drug suppliers could not export their products as normal.”

At an administrative level, the MSS pointed out in its annual report for 2019 that its work on drug cases was hampering its work in other areas expected by a security service agency.

Since the MSS is allowed certain interception powers, it is often asked for help in dealing with organised crime groups that deal with drugs. “While the Security Service always assists in the best way possible, a lot of its resources are being used in the war against drugs, often to the detriment of other work.”

But supply issues haven’t impacted drug purity. Local narcotics expert Dr Godwin Sammut says that there was no change in the purity of drugs tested in his lab over the span of the pandemic. However, he recalled a major decrease in drug seizures at the start of the pandemic.

“During the shutdown, when the airport closed, imported supplies almost stopped completely. And since there were no parties for a while seizures also almost stopped entirely.”

A study on drug supply during the pandemic suggested that COVID-19 disrupted the illicit drug market. Published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, the study used over 250 self-reported submissions on illicit drug transactions, tracking the date of the purchase and whether the drug successfully shipped to its intended location.

While the pre-pandemic success rate on deliveries stood between 60% to 100%, things changed after March 2020. The study says that successful deliveries represented only 21% of all transactions at the peak of the market disruption.

The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime already remarked on the shift in drug use experienced throughout the pandemic. MDMA, LSD and cocaine were less in demand as the party scene shut down, while the stress and boredom of the pandemic nudged more people towards cannabis

Last year, European officials warned that drug traffickers are adapting to COVID-19 travel restrictions by opting for shipping containers and commercial supply chains instead of human couriers. This was highlighted in the European Drug Report 2021.

Globalisation and technology fostered new ways of doing business, and Europe’s illicit drug market was no exception. The European report mentions that innovation in drug production and trafficking allowed for the establishment of new trafficking routes and the growth of online markets.

“In the global context, Europe is an important market for drugs, supplied from both domestic production and trafficking from other world regions. South America, West Asia and North Africa are important source areas for illicit drugs entering Europe, while China is an important source country for new psychoactive substances, drug precursors and related chemicals,” the European Drug Report reads.