CORONAVIRUS

Drugs Under Lockdown: Are People Partying More Or Less In Quarantine?

Our relationship with drink and drugs is changing during the Covid-19 pandemic – for better or worse.

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“What better time to take drugs than a hot April night at home, with the whole weekend stretching out ahead and not an inkling of pressing demands in sight,” says Jennifer*, 28, an occupational therapist from north London who has been taking psychedelics from self-isolation and having video calls with her friends.

“I joined one surprise birthday party while high with five or six of us on chat, then later I joined a bigger party with more Zoomers,” says Jennifer, who was upfront with her mates about what she’d taken. “They laughed and enjoyed slowly watching me unravel.” 

No one else on the calls was using drugs, she says, but everyone was drinking. A lot. All that excess free time and the monotony of quarantine life are factors, she thinks. “I think it’s a good time to get high more at the moment – but only if it’s coming from a place of curiosity and you feel grounded and mentally okay.”

Paula*, 42, a writer from north-east London, and her boyfriend Will, 40, a university administrator, have also felt more inclined to do drugs in lockdown – for pleasure and therapeutic use. “There’s more need for both of those in this situation,” says Paula, who adds that acid has felt specifically well-suited to making sense of the current climate.

“Acid plugs you into the beauty and hilarity of the world, and also enables you to explore big and scary notions, as does MDMA in a similar but softer way,” says Paula. “There’s this sense of heightened and intensified reality anyway, so being in altered states sort of aligns you with that.” Unlike Jennifer, the couple haven’t been using Zoom to connect with friends. “Zoom calls are totally overstimulating in the way that drugs are if you overdo it.” 

The UK government’s message to “stay home, save lives” has had complicated repercussions for our social and domestic lives. A recent survey by Alcohol Change UK suggests drinking is leading to greater household tension and conflict under lockdown.

So, is our relationship with illegal substances changing too? While there is no published research yet on the effects of lockdown on recreational drug use, Professor Adam Winstock, consultant addiction psychiatrist at University College London and founder of the Global Drugs Survey, is working on some of the first studies. 

“It’s going to vary by drug type,” says Prof Winstock, who believes initial predictions of increased drug use during the pandemic may be wide of the mark. “My guess is for the majority of people, their use will diminish,” he says.

In lockdown you can’t just walk round your house high if your family members don’t support drug use.

“Most people who use cocaine and MDMA in the UK use the drugs in social environments, maybe 10 or 15 times a year,” he says – and since lockdown, people haven’t been able to socialise in those contexts.

“It’s probably not that much fun doing half a gram of coke and a couple of pints when you’re stuck at home, as opposed to being at the pub or a club with your mates.” Other factors driving down usage include supply chains drying up and the cost of drugs increasing, he notes.

Jonathan*, 17, a student who lives with his parents, tells HuffPost UK he has been experimenting with drug combinations such as ketamine and marijuana edibles that he wouldn’t usually try outside lockdown, but that his use has decreased as he can’t get to pubs and clubs. “In lockdown you can’t just walk round your house high if your family members don’t support drug use.”

Video calling is the new normal when it comes to socialising in quarantine, and many people dialling into these digital meet-ups are living alone – either through choice or because their partners or housemates are self-isolating elsewhere.  Are a higher number of individuals drinking and taking drugs alone too?

It’s become commonplace to enjoy a ‘quarantini’ or two – and with more free time on our hands, lockdown may seem the ultimate opportunity to experiment. 

But experts warn that personal safety is at the heart of their advice not to take drugs during this period, particularly on your own, which is the most dangerous scenario, says Michael Rawlinson, treatment consultant at Clouds House treatment centre, run by the charity Action on Addiction.

There’s no one to watch out for you, to help if something goes wrong, to call the emergency services if an accidental overdose or adverse reaction occurs,” warns Rawlinson, who sees parallels between recreational drug use in lockdown and serious addiction issues down the line. “We would absolutely make this connection,” he tells HuffPost UK. “Increased substance use during this period could lead to a build-up of tolerance followed by dependence.”

Professor Winstock agrees it’s concerning if the use of recreational drugs becomes a priority of your social life under lockdown. “For a lot of people who haven’t seen their mates for a while, there’s enough to talk about and a desire to know what’s going on, without needing to take a bunch of coke,” he says 

“I think some people will just have a break, and they might realise that, hey, life’s a bit better and I’m saving money,” suggests Prof Winstock, who says the exception is likely to be cannabis – a “pretty good drug for eating up time”.

One group of individuals at higher risk right now are those in the chemsex community: largely gay men who use drugs such as GHB to enhance sexual experiences. Gay men are statistically more likely to feel lonely in or out of a pandemic, and are also more likely to put themselves in danger by using drugs alone or by breaking the rules to meet up with strangers for sex.

Isolation is a risk factor for many, and in regard to addiction, a triggering factor we can’t ignore. David Stuart

“For the most part, chemsex is recreational and people who engage are just as capable as the rest of the population of adopting physical distancing practices,” says chemsex commentator David Stuart. However, for those addicted to chemsex who are now in lockdown he paints a more complex picture.

“Isolation is a risk factor for many, and particularly in regard to addiction, it is a triggering factor we can’t ignore,” Stuart tells HuffPost UK.

“A very large percentage of people have more complicated relationships to drugs, using drugs (and sometimes sex, or a combination) because of unmanageable emotions, born of past trauma. That torment is louder and more persecutory when they are alone or isolated. They can experience an earnest compulsion to find distraction from those things.”

This challenge faces recreational drug users of any sexuality or background who feel vulnerable right now. “Substance use can be a conscious or unconscious coping mechanism which gives the illusion of reducing fear, anxiety or boredom,” says Michael Rawlinson. “This relief is only temporary and a dependency on substances to keep the feelings at bay can develop quickly, as more of the substance is required to generate the same feeling, and eventually it stops working altogether, leaving only the fear or anxiety.”

Many people will manage their drug intake sensibly, of course. But a spike in individuals contacting drug and alcohol charities is cause of concern. “We have experienced a nine-fold increase in visits to our website,” confirms Rawlinson. “And other charities are experiencing similar increases.” 

The Global Drugs Survey hopes to take a snapshot of drink and recreational drugs usage during the height of the coronavirus pandemic – with Prof Winstock aiming to report back on results within eight weeks. What won’t be clear for a while yet is the longterm impact of lockdown on our consumption habits.

“People are having to make changes to every aspect of their life, including their use of alcohol and drugs,” he says. “I mean, shit, I’m baking, three or four times a week – I’ve never baked so much in my life. Will I continue after lockdown?

“As we’re allowed to go back to our normal lives, for those of us who’ve cut our drinking down, are we going to go ‘life’s better, I’m drinking less.’ And for people who are now drinking every day, are they going to find it difficult to go back to just drinking on a Friday and Saturday?”

We may see “a second peak of risk”, Winstock predicts, “when people go out and maybe they haven’t used coke for a couple of months, or maybe they haven’t been drinking heavily, or they haven’t been taking pills. And they want to party. I suspect there are probably quite a lot of dealers sitting on a lot of stock.”

Ultimately, he says, as with every aspect of life affected by coronavirus, “we don’t know how quickly people will be able to return to their normal.”

*Some names have been changed to keep the anonymity of interviewees.

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