The Covid-19 pandemic crisis has resulted in reduced availability in Bulgaria of cannabis, heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs, while the price per kilogram of cannabis herb in the country has jumped by more than 20 per cent, EU drugs agency EMCDDA and police co-operation agency Europol said in a May 2020 special report.
The analysis regarding the illegal drug market in the EU and the impact of Covid-19 reports higher prices, local shortages and reduced purity for some drugs, while noting continued violence among suppliers and distributors.
It also shows how organised crime groups remain active and resilient, by “adapting transportation models, trafficking routes and concealment methods”, even during the pandemic.
Bulgaria reported a decrease in production of herbal cannabis, the report said, while Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Portugal and Spain reported a decrease in the number of heroin importations.
In terms of the volumes of single heroin shipments imported to the EU, six countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Sweden) reported no changes, while Austria and Bulgaria noted a decrease.
“It is important to note that Bulgaria, one of the main entry points for heroin in the EU on the Balkan route, reported that the number of seizures and the size of individual shipments have decreased during the reporting period,” the report said.
“The reasons for this are unclear, but the Covid-19 pandemic is probably an influential factor, as OCGs (organised crime groups) may be experiencing difficulties in transporting the drugs. The de-prioritisation of drug law enforcement may be a factor,” it said.
The trafficking of heroin has continued during the pandemic despite the various mitigation measures put into place by countries along the main trafficking routes.
The transportation of commercial goods, which are often used as cover loads, has continued.
Significant seizures of heroin have been reported along the Balkan route during this period, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, a joint operation between Turkish and Bulgarian authorities led to the seizure of 72kg of heroin in Bulgaria at the end of March 2020.
Meanwhile, on the Northern route and the Caucasus route, heroin trafficking also seems to be unaffected, although it is too soon to assess the intensity of the smuggling activity taking place, the report said.
At the end of April 2020, for example, a seizure of 40kg of heroin led to the arrest of two Bulgarian citizens, who allegedly transported the drugs by car from Armenia to Georgia, with the purpose of transporting them on to Europe.
Experts from Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark and Spain noted a decrease in the purity of heroin at the wholesale level.
When asked about changes in the number of cocaine seizures coming to Europe, experts responding to the EMCDDA survey from 10 countries reported no changes (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden). Another six experts (Austria, Bulgaria, France, Croatia, Portugal, Spain) reported fewer cocaine seizures during this period overall.
Bulgaria reported a decrease in synthetic drug production combined with a decrease in the availability of drug precursors. Any shortages of precursors may prompt producers to use alternative substances, which may result in unexpected drug products that may present additional risks to consumers, the report said.
According to the report, disruption to the drug trafficking supply chain is seen mostly at the distribution level, due to social distancing measures within the EU.
“With street dealing severely affected by restrictions on movement, consumers and dealers are increasingly turning to alternative methods, including the use of darknet markets, social media platforms and encrypted communication apps, with cashless payments and fewer face-to-face interactions.
“But while the logistics may have changed, the movement of bulk quantities of drugs between EU Member States has not ceased, despite border controls, due to the continued commercial transportation of goods across Europe,” according to the report.
There is less evidence of disruption at the wholesale importation level. Drug trafficking by maritime shipping continues at levels similar to the pre-pandemic period, although there has been a marked disruption in smuggling by air passenger transport.
Cocaine trafficking via maritime shipping containers continues at levels comparable to 2019 and the number of cocaine seizures in some countries has increased. Heroin trafficking appears to continue along many of the known routes (e.g. Balkan route).
Covid-19 has exacerbated already ongoing disruption to the cannabis resin supply chain from Morocco into the EU. This, along with stockpiling of herbal cannabis by consumers, has led to some cannabis shortages and rising prices.
Localised shortages of heroin have also been reported, which could lead to a switch to alternative substances (e.g. synthetic opioids).
“While the demand for cannabis and heroin remain largely stable, demand for synthetic drugs used in recreational settings has ‘significantly diminished’, due to the closure of clubs, nightlife settings and music events.
“Despite this, the production of synthetic drugs has continued,” the report said.
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