The impact of COVID-19 on the Isle of Man’s illegal drug trade

The island’s borders closed almost two months ago in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But how does tightly controlling who can come and go affect illegal drug supplies?

“I think the first week there was a drop [in supply], then they’ve just adapted and it’s gone back up again,” said Detective Inspector Christie Morgan.

She heads up the Isle of Man Constabulary’s drug and organised crime unit and its intelligence and special branch unit.

The force said that drugs are being sent through the postal service, as people are unable to travel further ashore.

“The Post Office has done a lot of work with us to try and proactively identify the packages coming in,” Detective Morgan added.

“We’ve got help from the Post Office, we’ve got plans in place there: being extra vigilant, we’ve got help from the dog handlers at the prison who are coming down to the Post Office and we’re getting extra patrols up there ourselves.

“We do get a lot [of drugs] through the boats normally, either in person or packed in cars, and because that’s stopped, we have seen a massive increase in the drugs seized at the Post Office.”

When lockdown started and the force noticed that it was harder for people to get drugs, there was an expectation that crime would go up, Detective Morgan said.

“We thought people might try to target pharmacies or we thought there’d be more assaults with people trying to get drugs off people – but luckily that hasn’t happened,” she explained.

“But that’s twofold, that means that the drugs are still available.”

But does demand change because people are not able to go out in the same ways?

It depends, according to Detective Morgan. Those taking heroin typically would not choose to stop, and cannabis users might see their intake increase if they are not in work.

However, consumption of party drugs like cocaine and MDMA “probably isn’t happening as much”.

COVID-19 has not just affected the supply of drugs to the Isle of Man, restrictions on movement within the island have changed the way drugs can be distributed once they arrive.

Detective Morgan said that dealers are selling in larger amounts to cut down on meetups.

“You’ll buy an eighth (1⁄8 of an ounce) so that will do you longer and you won’t have to make as many visits to your drug dealer,” she explained.

“That’s what we’ve found so far through intelligence – we’ve found that they’re just selling it in slightly larger amounts and changing where they would usually meet up to buy drugs.”

Detective Morgan said the force is probably finding more personal possession amounts because of restrictions on movement, with those who are out and about being stopped more.

Whether or not lockdown makes it easier to police the drug trade is more complicated.

“It’s easier in that there’s a lot of people at home, I think members of the public are ringing up and reporting stuff more than they usually would,” Detective Morgan said.

“Whereas before lockdown, people would come and go as they pleased and you wouldn’t really bat an eyelid… so I think people are a lot more sort of vigilant at the minute as to what’s going on, they’ve got a lot more time.

“But then it’s harder for us in that they’re [drug suppliers] changing their methods, so we’re trying to keep up with the changes to what they’re doing.

“In the past we’ve known how we can target people on the boat – but the boats aren’t happening now.”

Another challenge is keeping officers safe from the virus.

“We have to try and make sure that if we’re going into a house where we don’t know who’s in there or if they could have symptoms of covid, we ensure that everyone on the team has got full PPE on and just try to protect them as best as we can,” Detective Morgan explained.

“It’s more important that we protect our staff than we get the drugs.”

Her officers can also be assisted by the covid team, which tackles any issues relating to COVID- 19.

One covid team officer, who preferred not to be named, recalled going to the airports and ferry terminal in March, when those coming into the island were required to self-isolate for two weeks.

“We were down at the airport and the port, chatting to people, chatting to staff and obviously stopping everyone that came in, talking about isolating,” he said.

We were there really in the background.

“It’s not a nice situation to be coming into, a lot of people are thinking I’m just coming home, why should I be doing XYZ, or [they] may be a little bit anxious and distressed.

“It’s [the police presence] a nice calming measure.”

Is it difficult to be the person imposing restrictions on the public’s freedoms?

“We engage with people, we explain what’s happening and it’s putting that personal touch on – and that’s what the whole force is like,” the officer said.

The officer said he does not feel at risk from the virus.

“We are at the forefront and actually being exposed more than everybody else, but because we’re fully aware of it, and we’ve got the right protective gear (we pick the right equipment for the right scenario)…we should in essence be covered,” he said.

“I’m not fearful, but I’m aware of the risks.”

But one thing that is unacceptable to officers is when people try to spit at them during a pandemic, which the force said has happened “several times”.

“To be honest with you, I’d rather take a full on punch than somebody spit at me. It’s the most disgusting base thing ever,” said the officer.

“You have to be aware of that risk and stop it happening before it happens, if you can.”

But he said that the job is not harder now: “It’s kind of one of those jobs, you don’t know what you’re coming into on any given day.

“It’s brilliant, I love it.”

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