New Legal Highs at "Unprecedented Pace"

New psychoactive substances are becoming widely available at an ‘unprecedented pace’ according to the EMCDDA–Europol 2010 annual report on new drugs entering the European market. EURAD recommend generic bans and to target head shops

A total of 41 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time to EMCDDA and EUROPOL in 2010. This represents the largest number of substances ever reported in a single year, considerably up on 2009 (24 substances) and 2008 (13 substances). The full list of substances notified, annexed to the report, shows a ‘rather diverse’ group, including: synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, synthetic derivatives of well-established drugs, as well as one plant-based substance.

- There is now an urgent need for Member States to ban not only individual substances when they are identified but to ban entire chemical groups (so called generic bans),  EURAD's Secretary General Anders Ulstein says.

This is the only approach that will stem this flow, Ulstein says.

Under the so-called ‘Spice’ phenomenon, 11 new synthetic cannabinoids were picked up in 2010, bringing the total number of these substances monitored by the EWS up to 27. Responding to health concerns, at least 16 European countries have now taken legal action to ban or otherwise control ‘Spice’ products and related compounds.

Mephedrone banned

The EMCDDA annual report report gives an account of the 2010 risk assessment of the synthetic cathinone derivative, mephedrone, which led to the decision for Europe-wide controls on the drug in December 2010. A further 15 synthetic cathinone derivatives were detected during the year. Also documented is the first-time appearance of derivatives of two established drugs: ketamine and PCP (phencyclidine).

With a large number of new unregulated synthetic compounds marketed on the Internet as ‘legal highs’, the report describes the EMCDDA’s monitoring of online shops selling these substances.

"Anticipate future challenges"

Commenting on this year’s findings, EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz said:

- Given the speed at which new developments occur in this area, it is important to anticipate future challenges. While our early-warning system has recently upped its operational capacity to react rapidly to new substances and products identified, it currently lacks the ability to anticipate emerging threats. This could be addressed by actively purchasing, synthesising and studying new compounds and by improving our capacity for investigative forensic analysis and research at European level, he says.

Ulstein thinks these are all important improvements of the capacity of EMCDDA, but that this will not be able to stem the innovations of new legal psychoactives substances. We need to move from a reactive approach to a proactive one.

Generic ban

- Generic ban refers to measures to control entire groups of structurally related synthetic compounds. One may refer to these as “families” of substances that are commonly used, Ulstein says.

- By banning a chemical family there is no need to ban individual substances as they are replaced and introduced on the market. This is the only what Member States can stay ahead of the steady flow of new substances, he says.

- The scientific and legal procedure to detect, assess and regulate new substances at EU level should therefore focus on groups of substances and not as today only focusing on one substance at a time.

- In addition one needs to address not only the substances but their points of sale. Legal highs are sold either through the internet or in head shops (grow shops, hemp shops etc). Internet IP addresses can be blocked. This is done in the field of child pornography and gambling etc, says Ulstein. It can be done too for online sale of these new substances.

Closing the Head Shops

Ulstein continues:

- In some countries head shops provide a large part of the sales. These shops may provide a number of legal highs, user equipment and drug paraphernalia. Even if single drugs are banned and removed from their shelves these shops will remain a hub for users with a high risk of entering into and maintaining illegal drug use. The shops will maintain their customer base and promote and sell new substances for sale.

Ulstein thinks Member States should consider imposing conditions on head shops that will ensure that any circumvention of the law is precluded and that their role as marketers and promoters of psychoactive drug use is targeted.

- Many of their substances are of unknown origin and content. Although many of their products are probably harmless, customers and health authorities are entitled to know with certainty. Head shops should therefore be required to prove that all their products are not harmful. If such proof is not provided the shop will be closed. A robust enforcement is necessary in order to stop the spread of a drug culture and its harm in our communities.

EURAD acknowledges that parts of the trade may move underground.

- That is a concern, Ulstein says, but the availability will be reduced by making them illegal and targeting their easily accessible points of sale. An illegal market will be less tempting for new users compared to a legal head shop. The sooner these substances are banned and removed from the legal market the better. If these substances are allowed to become established psychoactive consumer drugs there will be a larger black market than if these trends are nipped in their bud, Ulstein says.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright, at the launch of the EMCDDA report, said:

- The emergence of “legal highs” is a major feature of Europe’s drugs problem today. This issue was recently highlighted in Europol's Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2011. We also notice that organised crime groups are increasingly active in producing and distributing drugs which can be associated with ecstasy. Together with our law-enforcement partners in the EU, Europol is determined to combat this phenomenon.

The EMCDDA–Europol 2010 annual report on new drugs was released on 11 May 2011 in Lisbon.