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SNF Dialogues

Substance Abuse: A Pandemic within a Pandemic


During the year since the start of the pandemic, cocaine use in Greece appears to have hit a record high for the decade, while use of antidepressants in March 2021 was double that of the same month in 2019. This new data was revealed for the first time during the Wednesday, April 21 SNF DIALOGUES event, “Substance Abuse: A Pandemic within a Pandemic.

Cocaine use has tripled since the start of the pandemic, and 2020 seems to be the year that saw the highest cocaine use in a decade. In March 2019, cocaine consumption measured 482 g. per day, while during the first lockdown in March 2020, it doubled to 804 g. per day. During the second lockdown in November 2020, it quadrupled, reaching 1,837 g. per day, and the increase continued from there, reaching 2,396 g. per day in March 2021.

This new data was shared publicly for the first time and analyzed during the SNF DIALOGUES webcast by National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA) Professor of Analytical Chemistry Nikos Thomaidis. Thomaidis gathered the data through chemical analysis of sewage in Attica at the Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at NKUA.

Sociologist and Research Director of KETHEA (the Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals) Gerasimos Papanastasatos offered interpretation of the data, discussing its social implications.

DATA: Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry Dep.of Chemistry, University of Athens / Prof. Nikos Thomaidis
VISUALIZATION: iMEdD Lab / Τhanasis Tromboukis

This same period also witnessed a sharp increase in the use of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants. March 2021 saw the highest increase in use over pre-pandemic levels, both in common sedatives with ingredients such as oxazepam and alprazolam and in antidepressants.

DATA: Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry Dep.of Chemistry, University of Athens / Prof. Nikos Thomaidis
VISUALIZATION: iMEdD Lab / Τhanasis Tromboukis

During this health crisis that we are experiencing, one pole is public health, related to the disease of COVID-19, and the other is mental health, which has fundamentally deteriorated during this past year,” commented Thomaidis, in presenting the data, for which the iMEdD Lab team prepared visualizations shown during the DIALOGUES discussion.

The term ‘narcotics,’ a usage which has prevailed in the market for them, is not an accurate term,” said Papanastasatos during his opening statement, making a distinction with psychotropic substances. “In fact, psychoactive substances have the ability to interfere with and to alter brain function. In this sense, they are not just narcotic substances. There are stimulants, sedatives, analgesics, hallucinogens, and hypnotics. Each of these categories has a completely different effect.”

The discussion also featured a screening of a pre-recorded interview with Fred Muench, a clinical psychologist and President of the Partnership to End Addiction in New York. Muench, who has faced his own experience of addiction, discussed the international scope of the problem.

The first thing we see is, whether you have a problem or not, alcohol sales have skyrocketed, across the globe. The other thing we’re seeing is an increase in prescriptions. And those are both for anti-depression, but also anti-anxiety medications and sedatives. We’re seeing a 30% increase, particularly during the beginning of COVID. We’re also seeing more synthetic use, and this has created an overdose crisis in the U.S., and in the use of methamphetamine, because you can create it in a trailer in the middle of nowhere.”

Substance use is not a matter of ethics. It is not a matter of deviant or non-deviant behavior. It has to do with personal choice. This does not mean of course, that the development of a problematic habit is always a matter of choice,” said Papanastasatos, referring to substance use and the way it can affect people in every stratum of society—a largely taboo topic. Commenting on the role of uncertainty—familiar to natural scientists—and the impact that it has on daily life, Nikos Thomaidis mentioned, “If we realize that any judgement we make includes uncertainty, then we will be able to deal with any situation in another way. Life itself contains uncertainty, and if we could teach this to our children and to people as a society, then perhaps we could solve the problem of addiction and many other problems.”

The SNF DIALOGUES discussions are held through journalism nonprofit iMEdD (the incubator for Media Education and Development) and curated by Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou.

*The opinions expressed by DIALOGUES participants, whether representing officially institutions and organizations or themselves, are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) or iMEdD. Speakers’ remarks are made freely, without prior guidance or intervention from the team.


Wednesday 21 April 2021
18:30 EET


Unpublished new data showing continuing increases in drug use over the last quarter was presented during the latest SNF DIALOGUES webcast.


Fred Muench

Fred Muench

Clinical Psychologist - Head of the "Partnership to End Addiction", US
Gerasimos Papanastasatos

Gerasimos Papanastasatos

Sociologist - KETHEA Research Director
Nikos Thomaidis

Nikos Thomaidis

Professor of Analytical Chemistry, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens