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Regular drug users have increased substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic

Survey results point to an urgent need for more comprehensive resources

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Photo (c) skhoward - Getty Images
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several studies have highlighted how consumers have turned to alcohol as a means of stress relief. Reports have indicated that binge drinking and harmful alcohol use have both been on the rise over the last year. 

Now, a new survey conducted by experts from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) revealed that a similar trend has emerged among regular drug users. According to their findings, substance use has increased among this population since the start of the pandemic, and many survey respondents are worried about a potential overdose. 

“People who use drugs have been negatively impacted by the pandemic in ways that put them at a greater risk for experiencing substance and health-related harms, including overdoses and a decreased ability to mitigate risk behaviors,” said researcher Dr. Farihah Ali. “These findings warrant the need for increased accessibility of safe supply programs, take-home naloxone and drug-testing kits, as well as novel approaches to help ensure they have the necessary tools available to make informed choices and mitigate risk.” 

How the pandemic has affected drug use

To understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected drug use, the researchers conducted 200 phone interviews with current drug users. Participants were either receiving opioid agonist treatment (OAT) or were using psychoactive substances at least once per week. 

The researchers learned that nearly 50% of the individuals they spoke with reported an increase in drug use since the pandemic started; approximately 7% reported relapsing over the course of the pandemic. 

“One of the potential factors in relapse is all the time spent alone and isolated with all the pandemic restrictions,” said researcher Dr. Tara Elton-Marshall. “Using alone itself was a real concern. We know that people who use alone are more likely to die of an overdose, in part because there is nobody there to administer naloxone or call emergency services.” 

Based on a rapid increase in overdose deaths in Canada during the early months of the pandemic, the researchers believe this increase in drug use could be because pandemic-related restrictions have affected how often drug users can access their substances of choice. 

Along with drugs being harder to access, the survey also revealed that many participants were unsure where their drugs were coming from or what they could potentially be mixed with. This led to nearly 40% of the participants expressing concern over overdosing. 

Implementing better safety measures

The pandemic has affected and changed nearly every facet of consumers’ lives, and these findings have highlighted just how critical it is for experts to step in and implement safety measures that could benefit those who are most vulnerable to drug use. Moving forward, the team hopes these results lead to real change that best serves consumers and their long-term health. 

“We need everything from good treatment and harm reduction measures to realizing that we are in an environment where everything is different during COVID and we need different solutions,” said researcher Dr. Jürgen Rehm. “We need to consider now how to decriminalize drug use. This survey lends strong support for the need for an integrated drug policy strategy including harm reduction.” 

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