New psychoactive substances: European Parliament committee backs Commission proposal

New psychoactive substances: European Parliament committee backs Commission proposal

"Today's vote is good news. Legal highs are not legal: they are lethal", said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner.

11th March 2014

The proposals to strengthen the European Union’s ability to respond to new psychoactive substances used as alternatives to illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy (IP/13/837 and MEMO/13/790) made important progress today. They were backed in the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) (51 in favour, 4 against). The new rules proposed by the Commission will equip the EU with a quicker and smarter system to help protect more than 2 million people in Europe who take pills or powders sold to them as ‘legal’.

"Today's vote is good news. Legal highs are not legal: they are lethal", said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner. "Drugs don't stop at national borders. In a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to tackle legal highs. More and more young people are put at risk through the growing number of these dangerous substances. We have to be quicker and we have to be cleverer in our reaction. I would like to thank the rapporteurs, Jacek Protasiewicz and Teresa Jiménez-Becerril for their speedy work on this important file. I hope we can make further swift progress in the European Parliament and in the Council now."

The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) confirmed the cornerstones of the Commission's proposals for a more rapid system preventing harmful new substances from being sold to consumers, and for a graduated approach that responds to the risks of new substances in a targeted way.

The new EU rules will speed up the Union's action (from over 2 years to 6 months, or quicker in case of an emergency). It will allow for the immediate withdrawal of seriously harmful substances from the market for one year.

A graduated approach will result in more drugs being banned at EU level. At the moment, the Union has a choice between either imposing criminal measures to address the substance or taking no action at all. There are cases in which no action is taken at Union level because the risk presented by a substance is real but not sufficient to justify criminal measures. A more proportionate approach will mean more substances are tackled. It will also allow for legal highs with legitimate commercial uses (such as Pregabalin, a drug used to treat epilepsy or 1,4 BDO) to still be used for their legitimate, medicinal purpose.

Fay Watson, Secretary General of EURAD, said "We have strongly welcomed the commission's ambition to respond more quickly to new substances which may be hazardous to health, having followed this process from the start. We have been impressed with the recent amendments put forward by Members of the European Parliament to further strengthen the Commission's proposals and hope that the process will not be too interupted by the forthcoming European Parliament elections".

The main changes introduced by the LIBE committee report aim to:

Clarify the conditions under which a Member State can introduce more stringent national measures to tackle the specific risks that a new substance poses in its territory;

Strengthen the exchange of information on and the risk assessment of new substances.

Next steps: In order to become law, the Commission's proposal needs to be adopted by the European Parliament and by the Member States in the Council, following the ordinary legislative procedure. A plenary vote in the European Parliament is expected in April.

Background

In recent years, on average one new psychoactive substance was detected every week in the EU, and the numbers are expected to increase in the coming years. Since 1997, Member States have detected more than 300 substances and their number more than tripled between 2009 and 2013 (from 24 in 2009 to 81 in 2013).

A 2011 report found that the current system has struggled to keep up with the large numbers of new substances emerging on the market (IP/11/1236). The Commission's proposal will enhance and speed up the Union's ability to fight new psychoactive substances by providing for:

A quicker procedure: At present it takes a minimum of two years to ban a substance in the EU. In the future, the Union will be able to act within just 10 months. In particularly serious cases, the procedure will be shorter still as it will also be possible to quickly withdraw substances from the market for one year. This measure will make sure the substance is no longer available to consumers while a full risk assessment is being carried out. Under the current system, no temporary measures are possible and the Commission needs to wait for a full risk assessment report to be completed before making a proposal to restrict a substance.

A more proportionate system: The new system will allow for a graduated approach where substances posing a moderate risk will be subject to consumer market restrictions and substances posing a high risk to full market restrictions. Only the most harmful substances, posing severe risks to consumers' health, will be submitted to criminal law provisions, as in the case of illicit drugs. Under the current system, the Union's options are binary - either taking no action at EU level or imposing full market restrictions and criminal sanctions. This lack of options means that, at present, the Union does not take action in relation to some harmful substances. With the new system, the Union will be able to tackle more cases and deal with them more proportionately, by tailoring its response to the risks involved and taking into account the legitimate commercial and industrial uses.