How does corona affect the drug scene? Are users drawn to particular substances during this uncertain time? Drug researcher Hayley Murray investigates and shares the users’ perspective. This time: corona and stimulants.
During the depths of lockdown this spring, particular substances seemed to be more popular amongst users than others. Specifically, many reported a decrease in their use of stimulants like speed and cocaine. Reasons given for this change were restricted social settings and incompatible effects. However, as the circumstances of lockdown are steadily relaxing, these substances are once again back on the table.
This blog piece will explore how and why the popularity of stimulant drugs has shifted throughout lockdown amongst recreational drug users.
Mid-March, many of us suddenly found ourselves unable go to bars, clubs, house parties, day festivals—basically any setting where you would expect to find people enjoying stimulants. Being restricted to one’s apartment swiftly cut down one’s options for socializing…and all the fun possibilities that can go along with it. Six years—I mean months—ago, before we had ever even heard of the word ‘corona’ (are we sure it’s only been 6 months? Can someone please double check that?), Amit (37) reported that he used cocaine around three times a month, but saw that number drop to zero during the first phase of lockdown. He attributed this dip in his cocaine use to no longer being faced with the well-known triggers of seeing friends, drinking, and pre and after parties.
Kris (32) regularly attends parties in Amsterdam with shiny happy people and great sound systems, but without those magical components, the idea of using party drugs like speed or coke at home didn’t “seem worth it” and preferred to save that sacred experience for when he can fully and safely embrace it. And the ravers.
Many of the people I spoke to actively avoided stimulants for the reason that the way these drugs made them feel didn’t seem to fit with how they felt at the start of lockdown. One of cocaine’s characteristics is its’ ability to create for the user a singular focus. At the start of the pandemic, where covid-19 dominated every media outlet and every conversation, Amit felt this effect would not be particularly helpful for his mental health. There was enough negative attention from all directions given to this virus, and being high on cocaine would only exacerbate that feeling. In addition, he explained that cocaine’s tendency to increase feelings of aggression and self-centeredness were also undesirable while the human race was suffering on a distressing scale. Rather, he found that lockdown was drawing him into an observant, still state: “the world is on a lower speed, so why should I need some?”
Tyrone (34) shared that at the outbreak of the pandemic, he intentionally stayed away from cocaine, which was “the worst thing” for his mood the next day. Instead, Tyrone and his friends favoured ketamine, which sedating effects made him feel—amongst the uncertainty of this pandemic—like he didn’t have a care in the world. Tyrone’s form of harm reduction ensured that he could still get high as he wished while a) not further contributing to the dark anxious feelings that this pandemic brought on and b) not physically or mentally suffer from a come down the next day.
These stories demonstrate that on the one hand, many users see and use stimulants to support connections and provide pleasure and, on the other, not necessarily be harmonious with the feelings that arise during a pandemic. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a researcher, it’s that not everyone shares the same motivation to use a class of drugs. And during a pandemic, it’s no different.
While users who were quarantining at home reported feeling overwhelmed and consumed by the news, a group of friends in isolation in a closed campground that I spoke to felt no stress about the spread of corona. Bonded together by choice, Esther (38) spent the first eight weeks of isolation with ten friends. In this fairly unique situation, they were completely away from society, sheltered from news, at a safe distance from the virus, and let’s just say they embraced it. What could be described as a mini festival, complete with a toddler, a dog, all-terrain vehicles, tents, and sunsets, they spent the week working and when Friday came, they let loose.
They were socializing the same, and using stimulants in familiar ways than the months before lockdown. In contrast to what Amit and Kyle were experiencing during lockdown, Esther and her friends had each other, and had no real sense of what was going on outside of their insular and fringe existence. True isolation created a strong bond between them, as they described their situation as feeling like they were the last people on earth. And this sense of destruction encouraged adventurous behavior with their drug use: when yet another line would end up on someone’s lap, the sun rising in the distance, it was commonly met with: “oh fuck it, why not, it’s the apocalypse!”
Since 1 July, people are allowed to socialize in larger groups and in new surroundings (read: no longer just your home or the park) and I’m grateful for what I see all around me: small backyard gatherings, dinner parties, book clubs, camping trips, daytime BBQ’s. Heck, just-because-we-can-again parties.
To use Kyle’s perfect sentiment and inspirational pun, the world is starting to pick up speed again. And so, it seems, are you. Now that the above reasons users gave for the decrease in their stimulant use are no longer as enforced (you can visit your friend’s house!) or felt (we’ve gotten used to this new world order!), are they still seen as unpopular choices?
It appears that this freedom to be reunited with friends in new settings after months of isolation has had an influence on the choice of drugs to use. Perhaps there is the need to make up for lost time with friends and a cocaine fueled conversation is just what your friendship needed. This was the case for Rowan (29) who hadn’t seen her best friend who lives in a different city in over three months. They had planned a “speed date” for their first meeting since mid-March and they were going to catch up with each other the only way they knew how: a dose of amphetamine to support their long night of talking and talking and talking and….
Kyle (32) has also seen his cocaine use increase slightly recently, also due to the changes in his social life as a result of the ease of lockdown. For Kyle and his friends, going out to restaurants or cafes is not (yet) totally appealing, but dinner parties at his house certainly is. And, the privacy is actually a nice change from the crowded public parks. His kitchen table is the familiar setting for their book club, which always begins with a good meal. And for dessert? Keep your forks, we’ll take straws for each of us, please.
If you have something to offer this discussion around recreational substance use and quarantine, which trust me, you do, please get in touch with me via Telegram @sharewithpoppi or email@example.com.
Your anonymity will be guaranteed.
For those of you who already have shared with me: you are great, thank you.
Check back in with Poppi’s blog regularly as, with your help, I’ll continue to explore what this new reality means for recreational substance use(rs) in the Netherlands.
Speaking of sharing: my friends over at Fair Trade Coke are curious about how corona is impacting peoples’ cocaine use. You can help them out via the link below:
Namens stichting Fair Trade Coke willen we graag onderzoeken of tijdens de lockdown er veranderingen hebben plaatsgevonden rondom het gebruik van cocaïne. We zijn benieuwd naar jouw ervaring en nodigen je uit om deze enquête in te vullen.
De deelname aan dit onderzoek bestaat uit het invullen van een online vragenlijst, wat ongeveer 10 minuten in beslag neemt. Je antwoorden zijn vertrouwelijk en we verzamelen geen persoonlijke data waarmee je geïdentificeerd kan worden, zoals naam, e-mailadres of IP-adres.
Hayley Murray is a drug researcher and project coordinator of the ChemicalYouth project at the University of Amsterdam. She is energized by talking to young people about their substance use and has had the privilege to do so with recreational drug users in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom.