New Zealand's illicit drug market has had a major shake-up due to Covid-19 with a new report forecasting likely price increases and a drop in purity.
A post-Covid 19 drug landscape document, created by Drug Information and Alert NZ, found it was "almost certain" the changes in the country's illicit drug market would have wide-ranging social impacts.
It detailed how supply fall-offs for methamphetamine were basically a given, at least in the short-term, due to global supply chain and domestic travel difficulties.
The report said price increases for the drug were more or less guaranteed, and informal collections suggest wide-scale price increases had occurred across the board.
"Some people who use drugs have reported 'dirtier', less pure methamphetamine since the Covid-19 restrictions."
The analysis, obtained by the Herald through the Official Information Act, was developed in May with information from partner organisations working at the coalface, as well as individual respondents.
New Zealand Drug Foundation deputy executive director Ben Birks Ang said the findings mirrored what they were hearing from in the field.
He said while lockdown was a good experience for some users who took the time as a break from substance use, it had led to an increase in use for others, particularly alcohol and cannabis users.
The document shows there was a significant reduction in seizures of MDMA in mail and non-mail imports, which during the January to March period were down seven per cent on 2019.
"It is likely there will be a continued reduction in supply of MDMA to New Zealand, however it is unlikely the effects of this reduced supply will be as significant as that of methamphetamine," the report read.
One dealer, spoken to on the condition of anonymity, confirmed it had been harder for him to come by MDMA, but the calls appeared to be increasing.
"The demand is perhaps higher [compared to pre-lockdown], I think there's a culture in New Zealand where people are now almost abusing the substance."
Although he was worried people were using it as a regular thing, instead of an occasional drug for events, the man was not concerned about the quality of MDMA he was selling.
"Personally you can always buy testing kits to demonstrate the quality of the substances, and from what I've seen it's pure."
While Birks Ang shared concerns regarding MDMA users over-doing their drug taking after lockdown, he said because of the supply disruption there would be purity issues.
"There's an increased likelihood at the moment that some of the substances that are being sold as MDMA may not be MDMA, they may have had different manufacturing or they may have other chemicals in there."
For him, the dangers of taking these riskier substances was compounded by lower tolerance levels among those who've taken a break- which put users at greater risk of needing medical attention or overdosing.
"If people have been used to taking a particular substance and have had time away from it, they would have lost some of the tolerance."
The report said Covid-19 restrictions were likely to have increased the risk of illicit drug misuse, relapses and overdoses.
"While the lockdown provided an opportunity for a minority of people to take a break from drugs, 56 per cent of individuals and 48 per cent of services have reported an increase in illicit drug use, with cannabis and methamphetamine contributing to the largest overall increase."
Also noted was the risk of substituting drug types as certain products become harder to source in the short term, which could lead to more related harm as it said unfamiliarity with a substance can result in overdoses.
"If the illicit drug supply dwindles, dealers may seek to stretch their existing supply by using cutting agents. This poses a danger as people may not be aware of what they are actually using."
A source told the Herald in May that methamphetamine had been difficult to access.
"It's impossible to obtain anywhere ... and if it does pop up, you're having to pay high prices for your fix. It's ridiculous."
Massey University associate professor Chris Wilkins said although the report was interesting, caution needed to be taken due to the sample size- which was collected from 64 service providers and 60 individuals.
"A lot of the agencies [involved] are central Wellington agencies, so we do have to keep these results in perspective."
Wilkins is releasing a New Zealand Drug Trends report, which had over 25,000 respondents, in two weeks and said they were still analysing the data but generally they have found a decline in availability.
"The impact on price is not so large, and I think that really represents that the lockdown period was actually a really short time-frame, if you think about ecstasy or MDMA people don't use it that frequently."
He said the lockdown had different impacts on drugs depending on where they were manufactured, which was also mentioned in the report.
"Because of the restrictions on international travel and freight, things like MDMA which are generally produced overseas or Methamphetamine which even if it's not produced overseas it needs ingredients from overseas, so it was probably affected by that."
This comes as university reorientation weeks are just around the corner- a time where many students partake in recreational drug use.
University of Canterbury Student Association president Tori McNoe is perturbed by how the changing drug landscape may affect students, and said risk-taking behaviour is always a worry when facilitating these types of connection-based events.
"Anything that we can do to minimise harm in our view is necessary, and because we have concerns with that, we are working with Know Your Stuff and the Drug Foundation and their drug checking services will be available in our city."
Another key finding was that many homeless people who stayed in emergency accommodation over lockdown found it easier to "detox" while in a stable environment.
"This presents an opportunity not only to maintain partnerships and networking that were established during the Covid-19 response, but continue to develop and build on them."
Birks Ang said this was something frontline organisations had wanted for a long time.
"While someone is sleeping on the streets it becomes really hard to think about the greater context, most of what they're focusing on at the moment is how to keep warm, get enough food, how to keep safe while they're sleeping on the street."
Another barrier for people sleeping rough was not having a physical address, which Birks Ang said was needed for many treatment services.
"I'm hoping that the effectiveness of this approach can be seen so that other opportunities like this and the housing first approaches will be used or similar modalities, where everything is focused on keeping them in the housing while their other issues are being addressed."
The Drug Foundation was optimistic about the increase in people seeking help for treatment, which the report said was likely due to changes in the illicit drug market.
Changes in dispensing over lockdown were also noted in the report, which said it could increase opioid-related overdoses.
"DHBs were dispensing multiple days' supply of the opioid substitution treatment (OST) medications, methadone and buprenorphine. These medications, when misused, have high potential for abuse."
However it also said free dispensing of an opioid reversing agent at DHBs, which began over lockdown, would almost certainly prevent fatal opioid-related overdoses over the medium to long term if continued.
The Ministry of Health was contacted for comment, however did not provide a statement by publishing deadline.
Although it's nearly certain Covid-19 restrictions have, and will continue to impede the sale of illicit drugs in New Zealand, the report said long-term disruptions and changes to sales are unlikely.