24th Oct 2016

'Spice' and other 'legal drugs' on the rise in Europe

  • In Romania, 'spice' shops are right next to grocery stores (Photo: EUobserver)

European drug manufacturers and dealers are becoming highly innovative and sophisticated in marketing legal alternatives to illicit drugs, such as 'spice', an annual report on the state of drugs in Europe shows.

While regular cannabis consumption is on the decline, a new trend, of 'legal' plant-based products with psychoactive effect is emerging, the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction reports in its latest released data.

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The report cites the example of 'spice', easily available both on the internet and in so-called dream shops which can be found in at least nine EU member states: the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Portugal and the UK.

"Although 'spice' may be advertised as incense, when smoked the effects are described by some users as similar to those of cannabis," the report states.

At least two of the ingredients - Pedicularis densiflora and Leonotis leonurus - may have some psychoactive effect. But little is known about the pharmacology and toxicology of the plant materials purportedly contained in 'spice' products, European drug experts warn.

In December 2008, Germany and Austria detected the synthetic cannabinoid JWH-O18, which animal tests have proven to have a more potent effect than regular cannabis. Early in 2009, a second cannabinoid substance, CP 47,497 was detected in spice samples from Europe.

In response, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Poland classified as narcotics several substances found in spice, while Austria banned smoking mixes of herbs enhanced with synthetic drugs.

Apart from street shops, spice can also be easily purchased online. According to the report's findings, most of the online retailers selling these products are based in the UK (42 percent), with significant numbers also in Romania, Ireland and Latvia.

"If spice is a taste of things to come, Europe will need to ensure that its responses are adequate to tackle this growing challenge," the monitoring centre's director Wolfgang Gotz said in a press release.

He said what was really new was the "wide range of substances" now being explored and the "aggressive marketing of products that have been intentionally mislabelled", as well as the growing use of the internet in selling these substances.

Meanwhile, the name of the 'legal drug' seems inspired from the science fiction best seller Dune written in 1965 by Frank Herbert, where the 'spice melange' was the most valuable substance in the universe, enabling people to travel instantaneously through space, extend life and give prescient awareness to those who ingest it.

Dutch lowest users of cannabis

The report also offers statistics on traditional drug consumption across Europe, showing that the Dutch are among the lowest users of marijuana or cannabis, despite their country's well-known tolerance of the drug. Among adults in the Netherlands, 5.4 percent used cannabis, compared with the European average of 6.8 percent.

The highest percentage of marijuana consumers was found in Italy, where 14.6 percent of the adults use the drug, almost double the number registered ten years ago. Spaniards, Czechs and French are also high users of cannabis, while Romanians, Maltese, Greeks and Bulgarians appear to be low users of the drug.

The general declining trend in the use of cannabis was deemed the "good news" of the report as statistics on hard drugs show a continued increase in consumption and addiction.

"There is little to suggest any improvement regarding cocaine and heroin use in Europe, the two substances that remain at the heart of Europe's drug problem," the report states.

Some 13 million Europeans between the age of 15 and 64 have tried cocaine in their lifetime, with the highest usage in Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Italy and the UK. In 2007, cocaine seizures in Europe increased to 92,000 compared to 84,000 a year before.

The use of several drugs at the same time is becoming an increasing problem, the report warns. Toxicology reports following fatal overdoses mostly caused by heroin often show the presence of more than one substance, suggesting that a considerable number of these deaths are poly-drug related.

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