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Drugs in the 2020s
Illustration by Callum Abbott

Drug use will change significantly in the 2020s – here’s how

Drugs in the 2020s

From dangerous new synthetic drugs to a growing love of psychedelics, this is how our drug use could transform over the coming decade

As a decade, the 2010s brought a lot of changes to drug culture and drug use in the UK and US. The number of people addicted to Xanax and opioids grew – a change we saw reflected in pop culture everywhere, from the lyricism of Soundcloud rap to the protests that Nan Goldin’s art-activist organisation P.A.I.N. staged outside of art galleries. We got more and more adept at ordering our drugs online, and spice emerged as a street drug of choice

According to Professor Adam Winstock, who founded the Global Drug Survey – a huge annual survey that tracks international drug-taking habits across 30 countries around the world – based on the number of people using, the most popular drugs are alcohol, cannabis, and then usually “a toss-up between MDMA and coke”. This has been pretty consistent over the course of the 2010s, and will probably remain so, he explains over the phone. However, that doesn’t mean that there won't be other major changes to our drug-taking over the next decade. Some of them we can predict, explains Winstock, and others we can’t. What it is exactly that we snort, and smoke, and swallow, and how much of it, is affected by lots of factors; politics, gangs, supply, demand, technology, policing, regulation, science, and trends. 

Below, we take a look at what changes we might see to our drug use in the 2020s.

NEW SYNTHETICS WILL EMERGE 

One of the main changes to rock the world of drugs in the 2000s and 2010s was the phenomenon of legal highs, like spice, aka “zombie drug”, a fake cannabinoid, or Mephedrone, which was banned by the UK government ten years ago this April. Often, these are synthetic drugs, which swerve around drug laws because they are usually just one or two molecules away from a controlled drug. 

Harry Shapiro, who works at DrugWise, a topical, non-judgemental, and evidence-based drug information service run out of the UK, explains that the internet helped to up these drugs’ popularity because it allowed chemists to exchange manufacture information, particularly on forums, or to look for expired drug patents to experiment with (which is why some people call these kinds of drugs “research chemicals”). In 2012, 73 new drugs reportedly appeared, sold across 690 websites.

“With legal highs often you get this kind of whack-a-mole thing happening, whereby, when they ban one – like Mephedrone, which was our first major legal high in this country – new versions of it pop up,” says Shapiro. “There was Naphyrone and there was Flephedrone. The point about drug laws is, you actually have to specify what you're charging someone with. You can't just say, ‘we're charging you with having a drug that's a bit like Mephedrone,’ you've actually got to name the substance. So the idea was that you keep producing these things that are slightly outside of the law and then the law bans them and then you move onto the next one.”

In the US, as an opioid epidemic has swept the country, the use of the synthetic opioid Fentanyl has swiftly followed. With a synthetic drug, you don’t need to harvest poppies, you don’t need to drag them 5000 miles from Afghanistan and take on all the risk of getting busted on the way,” says Shapiro. “You basically just ship some chemicals in from China, which is what’s happening, mix it up with a bit of heroin powder – and maybe not even that – and sell it and people will buy it. It’s much less of a business risk.” 

For these reasons, synthetics are only going to get more popular in the 2020s, says Shapiro. “Nobody has come up with synthetic cocaine yet or synthetic crystal meth but it wouldn’t be surprising if they did.” However, he notes that Fentanyl is rarer in the UK than the US, and hopes that things are likely to stay that way, given that in 2016, synthetic opioids surpassed prescription opioids as a cause of overdoses in America. “I suppose you’ve got to establish a market for it to become popular. In America, once prescription opioid addicts could no longer afford the cost of the prescriptions, they switched to doing cheaper heroin and in turn to Fentanyl.” For it to take off in the UK, you’d probably have to see something like the 2010 heroin drought that was caused by a poppy blight in Afghanistan, he says, or crackdowns on heroin importation. 

DRUG PURCHASING WILL LOOK MORE LIKE UBER EATS 

Synthetic drugs aside, in the 2010s, the biggest game-changer in the drug market was not necessarily about the substances themselves, says Shapiro, but rather, the way that we bought them. The Global Drug Survey backs this up, finding that in 2019, online purchasing had more than doubled since 2014. 

“With the internet, certainly in the UK, we got a much more developed purchasing and parcel delivery service,” says Shapiro. Whether they know it or not, companies like Yodel and DPD became the new drug runners, with people increasingly buying their drugs online. “In the 2000s there came the capacity to pay online in micropayments, over PayPal or your credit card for legal drugs,” says Shapiro. “Then you had the development of the dark web and cryptocurrencies, which meant that people could buy anything; heroin, coke,  crystal meth.” The ease of this, says Shapiro, led us to believe “the myth that most people are buying their drugs online.” Currently, they’re not, however, he predicts that the figures will continue to rise well into the 2020s.

Winstock also predicts a shift in sophistication in terms of networks and delivery: “It’s already pretty easy to get drugs, but if you’re already having Amazon deliver things by drones, and you’re having drones deliver drugs into prisons, in ten years time, that could be pretty normal,” he muses. “Are there drug dealing drones dropping drugs into your garden from thousands of feet? I don’t know. But I think we will definitely see big changes.”

WELLNESS CULTURE WILL REVIVE OUR LOVE OF PSYCHEDELICS (MORE THAN IT ALREADY IS) 

You don’t have to be an expert to recognise that psychedelic drugs are having a strong resurgence. Our obsession with wellness has brought with it an emphasis on returning to the natural and harnessing the therapeutic properties of hallucinogens, which were first trialled back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In the 2010s Silicon Valley was at the forefront of a movement of micro-dosing LSD and mushrooms. The use of psychedelics is so mainstream now that, on Netflix, you have Gwyneth Paltrow endorsing magic mushroom retreats on her new lifestyle show The Goop Lab. In hip hop, Travis Scott has led the charge on psychedelic trap, while smaller tripped out pockets of psychedelia-inspired hip hop have popped up in places as far-reaching as Georgia

According to Winstock, in the UK, “stimulant drugs still dominate, but in terms of probably the fastest-growing interest area, it’s dissociatives, psychedelics, and hallucinogens. I would imagine that would probably continue well into the 2020s,” he says. “I think we’re moving into a decade with a much stronger interest in psychedelics.” 

Mushroom oil is particularly having a moment. Chris, 34, from North London, buys mushroom oil from an “old American hippy guy” who lives nearby, who grows and distills it himself. “Depending on the quantity you’re buying, it’s usually £20 for a small bottle,” Chris explains. “I’ve taken it all over the place, but usually outdoors. It’s nice to make a day of it and something great always happens at dusk. Obviously getting high generally is fun and pleasurable but unlike the pills and coke I did throughout my twenties, this doesn’t make me feel like shit for days after. Quite the opposite actually. The whole experience feels very therapeutic and worthwhile. It feels very natural. Expect unparalleled laughter.” 

Psychedelic drugs are being used recreationally, yes, says Shapiro, but also to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. “I think that there will be a continued transition and dynamic migration between what we consider a drug and what we consider a medicine,” summarises Winstock. “So, MDMA, LSD, and ketamine, for instance, will – depending on who you are talking to – be psychiatric treatments or they’ll be drugs of abuse.”

OUR WEED CONSUMPTION WILL GET MORE AND MORE ‘LA’

Alicia, who is in her late twenties and lives in Brighton, buys weed chocolate from her drug dealer for £20 a bar and takes it at dinner parties with her friends. Sophie, 30, also from London, only orders weed from a dealer who cultivates organic and biomedically grown weed strains, most of them Californian. “What we love about their service is that they share updated menus every season, there’s a waiting list for new products, and they deliver to your door. The weed itself comes in a jar that is labelled with the name of the strain, and they’re now branching out to weed tinctures and edibles.” 

Listening to Sophie, you’d think she was describing one of those services that deliver you organic vegetables or wines. Her weed buying habits are decidedly middle class, but also very LA. Since California legalised weed in January 2019, an increasingly competitive market has encouraged the variety and technology of weed products on sale. The UK’s illegal weed market has followed in its image; Alicia also buys weed gummies and has been to a gourmet cannabis supper club, while vaping weed has become more common – despite the dangers attached to weed vaping

Shapiro says that he can’t see the UK government legalising marijuana any time soon, since for that to happen usually there has to be a strong social or political pressure (as in Uraguay, which legalised to decrease violence). However, he believes that, as we as a culture in Britain get more used to the idea that we can use cannabis-based medicine (CBD is now legally used to treat epilepsy and MS here), NICE – the body which approves medicines for the NHS, will keep adding more and more conditions to the list of what can be treated over the next 10 years. “I mean, nobody is going to be writing you a prescription for a spliff,” he qualifies. However, others disagree. A group of cross-party MPs in the UK, including David Lammy, have predicted that cannabis will be legalised in Britain within the next five years.

“I think we’re moving into a decade with a much stronger interest in psychedelics” – Adam Winstock, Global Drugs Survey 

WE WILL PROBABLY STILL TAKE LOADS OF COCAINE

According to the Global Drugs Survey, over the last few years, of the participants surveyed, approximately 30 percent had done cocaine in the last 12 months, and its popularity remained pretty consistent regardless of geography. Shapiro says it would be naive to think that, due to a wave of eco or social consciousness, cocaine use will fall in the 2020s. “It’s a major drug. People are suggesting that all middle-class cocaine users are automatically into veganism, organic this and that and climate change protest. Firstly, you’re not necessarily into that because you’re middle class, and secondly, cocaine use is ubiquitous, from paupers to princes. I honestly don’t believe that most of the people who are regular users actually give a stuff about where it comes from. And I don’t see where there’s any research that says otherwise.”

Shapiro points out that Britain has been near the top of the cocaine taking “Premier League” for pretty much all of the last decade. “I can’t actually see that changing any anytime soon unless something happens with a cocaine supplier. It’s really only coming from a few countries in South America, so unless authorities crackdown or there is some kind of blight that wipes out the coca plant, which is unlikely to happen, I don’t see any falls in cocaine use happening, as long as there is demand on supply.”

PRESCRIPTION DRUG ABUSE COULD GO UP AS WE SELF-MEDICATE MORE 

Over the past decade, we’ve seen growth in the use of prescription drug use in both the UK and US. “The amount of both antidepressants and opioid painkillers like Tramadol, Xanax and Oxycodone we take has gone up significantly,” says Shapiro. The main reason behind that will be an aging population – more pain and the loss of spouses and loved ones results in a toxic mix of psychological problems and physical problems backed up against a GP primary care system in the UK that’s hugely under stress, with thousands of GPs short. This results in more prescriptions written.” 

He continues: “The uptake of Xanax is much more related to what’s happening with younger people than older people and I think you have to relate that to the dreadful state of mental health services in the UK, but particularly child and adolescent mental health services. We hear on the news about suicide rates and self halm going up among young people and I think where you get that kind of drug use – because this is not a party or good time out drug – comes from self-medication of anxiety and depression, which is obviously promoted even more so by the advent of social media.” 

How will this change over the next decade? “I think we’ll have to wait and see if the government delivers on its promises about public services. At the moment, and for a long time, they have been very poorly underfunded. So if you do have problems getting to see your GP or if the GP decides you’ve had enough antidepressants and tranquillisers, or you can’t get the support or therapy you need, you go online and buy what you think might help.” As with psychedelics, says Shapiro, this will trigger a 2020s trend of more people using drugs in a way that occupies the grey area between medicinal, recreational and abusive.

TECH WILL ALTER OUR INTERACTION WITH DRUGS

It’s hard to imagine now, but ten years ago, we did not vape cannabis. This makes you wonder what else will change. “I would suspect the biggest shift will probably we maybe not in what drugs we’re using but how we’re using them,” says Winstock. “So, changes in terms of doses, combinations and routes of administration.” Drugs may adapt in their particular formulation and technology may change to allow drugs to be taken differently, perhaps resulting in different risks and effects. “If we look at the way that medicines are evolving, I’m sure more drugs will be vapourised, they’ll develop more rapidly dissolving drugs, as well as pills that dissolve more slowly for long term release. All of those things could impact the drug market.” 

On top of that, says Winstock, he believes that there will be an expansion of technological ways to alter your consciousness – so virtual reality drug trips, but that a lot of those would be interacting with drug experiences themselves. “I think we’re already seeing that, with people getting off their faces and using virtual reality.” Shapiro agrees: “In times to come, people maybe we’ll be able to download a virtual heroine experience or similar.” 

Elsewhere, technology will be used to curb our drug use. New AI technology could also be used to patrol Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube looking for dodgy ads for opioids. A US startup has just been awarded funds from the US Department of Health and Human Services to develop the machine-learning software, which would sniff out opioid sellers on social media. 

“As a species, we seem to be hardwired to enjoy altered states of consciousness. And I think that goes back as long as we’ve been able to walk upright and will continue long into the future” – Harry Shapiro, DrugsWise

EXISTING DRUGS COULD GET MORE DANGEROUS 

Finally, Shapiro explains, drugs already out there on the market such as ecstasy have been getting stronger. A “normal” dose is about 75 to 100 milligrams per tablet, but there have been tablets on the market of late averaging about 200 to 250 milligrams. “Deaths have been going up over the last decade if you look at the Office of National Statistics,” he says, “I’m not talking about hundreds and hundreds of people. But it’s definitely been on the rise and that will continue.” In 2018, 92 people died from ecstasy in the UK, compared to 56 in 2017. Deaths involving cocaine also went up, doubling between 2015 and 2018 to their highest ever level.

So, how can we be more careful in years to come? That advice is the same old, mostly, he explains: “If it’s a powder, have a dab and see what happens. If it’s a pill, break it in half or quarter it, and try that first.” Plus of course, be careful when mixing with alcohol in large quantities. Shapiro also suggests utilising a service called The Loop, that tests your drugs for strength and quality on festival sites, there and then, on the proviso that you won’t get into trouble with festival organisers or the police. 

The main thing about drug-taking in the 2020s, he concludes, is that we never really know what is coming around the corner, which new drugs will appear, what the culture will latch on to. By 2030, we could be taking drugs that we’ve never even heard of now, in ways we can’t imagine. “I honestly would not rule out anything in relation to the fact that, as a species, we seem to be hardwired to enjoy altered states of consciousness. That goes back as long as we’ve been able to walk upright and will continue long into the future.”