According to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “The COVID-19 pandemic had a disruptive effect on drug markets. With international travel severely curtailed, producers struggled to get their product to market. Night clubs and bars were shut as officials ramped up their attempts to control the virus, causing demand to slump for drugs like cocaine that are often associated with those settings.
“However, the most recent data suggests this slump has had little impact on longer-term trends. The global supply of cocaine is at record levels. Almost 2,000 tons was produced in 2020, continuing a dramatic uptick in manufacture that began in 2014, when the total was less than half of today’s levels.”
According to The Guardian, production “of coca, the drug’s base ingredient, spiked 35% in 2020-21, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.”
“The pandemic was a bit of a blip for the expansion of cocaine production, but now it has rebounded and is even higher than what it was before,” said Antoine Vella, a researcher at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and who contributed to the report on cocaine.
The UN report says that the “surge is partly a result of an expansion in coca bush cultivation, which doubled between 2013 and 2017, hit a peak in 2018, and rose sharply again in 2021.
“But it is also due to improvements in the process of conversion from coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride. In parallel, there has been a continuing growth in demand, with most regions showing steadily rising numbers of users over the past decade. Although these increases can be partly explained by population growth, there is also a rising prevalence of cocaine use. Interceptions by law enforcement have also been on the rise, at a higher speed than production, meaning that interdiction has contained the growth of the global amount of cocaine available for consumption,” the report continues.
While the cocaine trade has long been concentrated in major hubs like Colombia, that might be changing. As Vella told The Guardian, “I think we need to shift away from thinking of cocaine as being a European/North American problem because it’s also very much a South American problem.”
“The cocaine trade in Colombia was once controlled by just a few major players. As a result of a fragmentation of the criminal landscape following the demobilization of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 2016, it now involves criminal groups of all sizes, structures and objectives. But, signs of consolidation of some of these groups have recently emerged. These developments have led to an increasing presence of foreign actors in Colombia. Mexican and Balkan criminal groups have moved closer to the centre of production to gain access to supplies and wholesale quantities of cocaine,” the report says. “These foreign groups are not aiming to take control of territory. Instead, they are trying to make supply lines more efficient. Their presence is helping to incentivize coca bush cultivation and finance all stages of the supply chain.”
The report continues: “In established cocaine markets, the proportion of the general population using the drug is high. But these markets only cover around one-fifth of the global population. If the prevalence in other regions increases to match established markets, the number of users globally would increase tremendously because of the large underlying population. This type of market convergence has already been happening in the case of Western and Central Europe, where purity levels and prices have harmonised with the United States, although prevalence of cocaine use in Western and Central Europe has not yet reached the level in the United States.”