Has Covid-19 changed our relationship with drugs? The answer is complicated

If three years ago Maddie Greer had been told she would smoke weed every day, she wouldn’t have believed it.

But when the pandemic struck, Greer, a 24-year-old writer from Georgia, changed. She started drinking so much that she gained 80 pounds. She began to have health problems, including constant heart palpitations. To stop drinking, she wanted something else to relax, calm the depression, and allay her anxiety. She bought an ounce of weed and a bong.

“Like almost everyone, I was morbidly depressed and I was presented with very few outlets for these new feelings,” said Greer. Reverse. “I feel like if I hadn’t been locked in my house for over 18 months, I would never have started.”

Greer had always had a fairly high baseline anxiety level, but was generally able to deal with it with exercise classes, social gatherings, and being occupied.

“When the pandemic hit, I lost all of these outlets and I just had to reckon with my brainworms day in and day out,” says Greer. “When I first started smoking I felt like it was a release. Like all the millions of things that should worry me have fallen out. I feel like I’m in this nice little one. bubble.

Research and stories like Greer’s that suggest the coronavirus pandemic has changed many people’s relationship to drugs in countries where these drugs are already common – be it alcohol, cannabis, medication. prescription or holiday. In this case, the drugs were aimed less at feeling good and more at don’t feel bad.

A person smokes marijuana in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brookyn in April 2020. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

In fact, since March 2020, scientists have reported a general increase in the consumption of alcohol, nicotine and marijuana, both medical and recreational. There has also been a significant increase in the abuse of prescription drugs for anxiety and depression, as well as opioids. Meanwhile, at the start of the pandemic, there was a decrease in the use of amphetamines and “party drugs” such as cocaine and MDMA, before reverting to pre-lockdown levels.

What has caused, and still causes, fluctuating drug use patterns is complicated. Experts say Reverse this use may be linked to feelings of distress caused by the pandemic, but social models also explain drug use. The pandemic has altered access to certain drugs and motivations for use, depending on the substance.

And while this phenomenon may be a blow to the timeline, experts are eager to see if a related force will be lasting: telemedicine and its potential to ensure that drug use becomes safer and more controlled.

Substance use during Covid-19

Throughout 2020, 23 percent of adults reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress, according to the 2020 Stress in AmericaTM: A National Mental Health Crisis survey. The survey also found that 13% of Americans started increasing their drug addiction as a way to cope with stressful emotions in August 2020.

But while studies and surveys find an association between drug use and the onset of the pandemic, they do not explain why this association exists.

Haley Shafir, a licensed clinical addiction specialist at Choose Therapy, a New York-based firm, predicted this increase in drug addiction at the “very beginning” of the pandemic.

“It was clear that a pre-existing epidemic of drug addiction and mental health issues would increase in response to stress, unemployment, financial insecurity and social isolation,” Shafir said. Reverse. She argues that it’s about coping.

Pills and prescription drugs collected as part of National Prescription Drug Recovery Day 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

“Drug addiction is rarely about drugs or alcohol, but rather what a person uses to numb, cope or escape,” Shafir explains. Reverse. “We become much more vulnerable to these forms of chemical and man-made connections when we are suffering from stress or other psychological or physiological pain.”

“The latter, in turn, can create stronger chemical incentives for the dopamine and serotonin that these drugs provide,” she says.

For David Herzberg, a drug historian at the University of Buffalo, it is more about the social structures of access to drugs that have led to the change in drug use throughout the pandemic.

“I haven’t seen a lot of historical evidence that the sheer sum of human stress and misery has had a significant impact on drug use rates in the United States,” he said. Reverse.

He points to the Great Depression: “It was a time when there was a lot of stress and anxiety among a very wide range of people, and the use of a lot of drugs decreased because no one had money, world trade had collapsed, and there wasn’t as much supply around.

How has access influenced Covid-19 drug use? Herzberg believes the pandemic provided further justification for turning to drugs due to its seemingly temporary condition, leading people to believe they would lower their doses once the pandemic is over.

“There was definitely a high level of anxiety in the community.”

We also don’t need surveys to show certain drugs were used more at the start of the pandemic: In January 2021, researchers at Murray State University analyzed wastewater in Kentucky and Tennessee with the aim of to spot Covid-19 epidemics. They discovered something else along the way: an increase in prescription opioids and anti-anxiety sedatives and a decrease in illicit drug use.

One of the most abused prescription opioids was hydrocodone, sold as Zohydro ER: its use increased by 72% in the first months of the pandemic. Benzodiazepines, a class of drugs used to treat anxiety, increased by 30% and antidepressants increased by 40%.

“There was definitely a high level of anxiety in the community,” said lead author of the study, Bikram Subedi, senior researcher at Murray State University. Reverse. “This tells us that people’s anxiety levels were increasing and the levels of prescription drug use were also increasing.”

Subedi has continued to monitor wastewater, and its preliminary data suggests methamphetamine and cocaine use in some communities is on the rise again, rebounding to a pre-pandemic level.

“But we don’t know how it will go any further,” he said. “Overall, I think the level of community anxiety and the availability of the drug can have a significant impact on the drug use profile.”

Subedi suggests there were fewer amphetamines available because the lockdown closed many illicit drug markets – but there were more prescription drugs available due to better access to health professionals thanks to the telehealth.

The future of drug use in a pandemic

“Drugs seem to be a really fundamental part of what humans do,” Herzberg says. “We use a huge amount of drugs and usually almost always have them. ”

“It seems that during the pandemic there was a dramatic divergence between the people whose access has become much more dangerous, which is why you have a lot of opioid overdoses, and the people who, perhaps thanks. to expanded access to these regulated medical markets, have come to consume drugs in a way that is beneficial to them without any serious harm, ”Herzberg said.

In this March 2020 photo, people line up to buy marijuana products in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

And while drug use isn’t synonymous with overdose, it’s something public health experts are following: 2020 saw more drug overdose deaths than at any time in American history, a 29% increase compared to 2019.

“The pandemic has been the perfect storm for substance use disorders. It turned “functional drug users” into non-functional drug users, ”said Dave Marlon, psychotherapist and licensed substance abuse and alcohol counselor, CEO of CrossRoads of Southern Nevada, Nevada’s largest addiction and rehabilitation center. Reverse.

Marlon says that a combination of the heartbreak and distress of the pandemic, the government imposed isolation and the lack of access to health care and surveillance has caused an increase in opioid overdoses.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Marlon.

He hopes telehealth can benefit people with addictions – if used enough. “If there is one bright side to the pandemic, it is that, especially professional caregivers, we have all learned very quickly to engage in telemedicine,” said Marlon. Reverse.

“I think it’s a reversible trend.”

Shafir believes that in the short term, substance use disorders will continue to increase, but this trend does not necessarily have to continue indefinitely as a “new normal”.

“Substance abuse has the highest rate of ‘spontaneous remission’ – improving without treatment – than any other chronic health or mental health problem,” Shafir said. “I think this is a reversible trend. About 50% of people who develop an addiction eventually make a full recovery, and most do so without any treatment. “

Going forward, it’s difficult to predict how our relationship with drugs might change over the next few years. There is hope that telemedicine will maintain better access to health care, and there is a reality of addiction associated with certain drugs. Traditional drug use is highly likely to remain stable, or slightly increased, Herzberg says.

“Also, if you assume an economic rebound, you should see growth and an increase in drug use. Because drugs are part of the economy. They are part of the things that are sold, ”says Herzberg.

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