A Customs and Border Protection officer checks a vehicle for contraband. / Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection

The coronavirus pandemic has upended many things at the border. Recreational, or non-essential, travel has been restricted since March. Border agents are apprehending fewer migrants who cross without authorization and are immediately sending some of the migrants back to Mexico.

Add to that list the illegal drug trade. Coronavirus-related border controls, lockdowns and flight shortages are making illegal drugs more expensive and difficult to obtain around the world, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a May report. Since many drug supply chains, especially for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, are spread out geographically, the disruptions in these markets began before Mexico and the United States put limits on the border. Some of the chemicals necessary to produce those drugs are produced in Asia, which went into lockdown much earlier.

Indeed, both in the San Diego sector and nationally, drug seizures have been down for all drugs, except cannabis, since March, though it appears seizures are starting to increase again. Experts generally agree that seizures only represent a fraction of what actually crosses the border, but they can also be a proxy for what is crossing, and tell us a bit about drug prices.

In February, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 5,754 pounds of cocaine. In March, that number plummeted to 1,252 pounds. Between February and March, agents also saw a decline in the amount of methamphetamine they seized — from 12,542 to 8,907 pounds.

The cannabis industry in North America has been less impacted, the U.N. report noted, because those products are generally produced locally and distributed through a shorter, domestic supply chain.

In San Diego, between January and March, drug seizures of all kinds fell from 14,784 pounds to 4,901 pounds, though numbers have started to increase more recently.

In April, a special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego Field Office told Reuters that drug prices in this sector were up about 20 percent across the board, except for methamphetamine, whose price had more than doubled to as much as $2,000 a pound.

Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego, will start studying how COVID-19 impacts substance users in the San Diego and Tijuana border region.

“About 15 to 20 percent of people who inject drugs in San Diego go down to Tijuana to buy and use drugs,” Strathdee told me. “When COVID hit, it occurred to me that population would be hit pretty hard in a number of ways.”

For example, she said, when the border was severely restricted after 9/11, there was a backup of drugs in Tijuana that wasn’t intended for Mexican consumers. That likely resulted in more drug use in Tijuana.

There are also unique challenges that drug users face during the pandemic — social distancing is hard when you need to feed that addiction. That could result in more COVID-19 cases among drug users and higher citations for not following rules put in place by municipalities and states during the pandemic.

The drug use itself could make people more vulnerable to the disease. For example, Strathdee said, people who smoke regularly may damage cilia and lung tissue that could make them predisposed to being infected by COVID-19.

Strathdee’s study was just recently funded, but her team is planning to start getting out in the field in July to begin their research.

  • Human and drug smugglers have increasingly turned to the Pacific Ocean to get to the United States, especially since the pandemic started and restrictions at the border have gone into place. Last weekend, Border Patrol agents in San Diego arrested 39 people as they worked with other federal agents to target human smugglers using boats.

Baja California Lacks Transparency, Suffers Economically During Pandemic

Border Agent News

  • Five U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees have died of COVID-19. More than 670 have tested positive for the virus, 137 of whom are in California, according to agency data.
  • Border Patrol violated federal statutes when it spent money intended for migrant care on motorcycles, printers, SUVs, speakers and cameras, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report finds.
  • Border Patrol has been supporting law enforcement during San Diego protests against police brutality, but the extent of the agency’s role in policing protests remains shrouded in secrecy. (KPBS)

South Bay Coronavirus Updates

  • South Bay cities, which include some of San Diego County’s hardest hit areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been outlining how they will spend federal relief funds to respond to the coronavirus. (Union-Tribune)
  • San Diego’s South Bay residents, who often cross the border to buy more affordable medicine in Tijuana, are struggling with access to medications like insulin because of border restrictions. (Union-Tribune)

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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