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17th Apr 2021

Surge in new drugs as Europeans seek 'legal highs'

  • 'Legal highs' can contain banned or harmful substances (Photo: Tiago Rïbeiro)

New psychoactive drugs are appearing on the market at the rate of about one a week as Europeans seek "legal highs," a job made easier by the large rise in online drugs retailers.

Fifty-seven new substances have already been detected this year, up from 49 in 2011 and 41 in 2010, according to a report published on Thursday (15 November) by the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

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Cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines continue to be the main stimulants. But they are competing with a growing number of emerging synthetic drugs.

"Young people are more and more exposed to all kinds of powders and pills. Every year we have new psychoactive substances appearing on the market," says EMCDDA director Wolfgang Goetz.

"Stimulant and synthetic drugs play a central role in the European drug situation, creating a market which is fast-moving, volatile and difficult to control," said EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

Three natural products - kratom, salvia and magic mushrooms – top the list of 10 legal highs offered online, but the remaining seven are synthetic.

While they are commonly known as "legal highs" - designer drugs that have similar effects to prohibited drugs, but are chemically different so that they are not illegal - the agency notes that they often contain banned or harmful substances.

Another popular term is "herbal high," referring to the supposed natural origin of the product. To get around consumer or market regulations, these are marketed with benign labels such as "bath salts" or "research chemicals."

Synthetic cannabinoids (marijuana-like substances) and synthetic cathinones (such as mephedrone or "meow meow," an increasingly popular party drug) make up two-thirds of the newly notified substances reported last year.

Meanwhile, buyers are helped by the explosion in the number of online shops.

A "snapshot" by the agency in January this year found 693, more than double than was found a year previously.

"We know quite a lot about these emerging trends but we really have to know more and for that we need better information," said Goetz, pointing particularly to improved forensic and toxicology expertise.

The drugs experts note that most of the new drugs are being made outside Europe, mainly in China and "to a lesser extent" India.

So far, the agency has yet to detect an overwhelming presence of organised crime in this new psychoactive drugs market.

"Currently the market seems to be largely driven by opportunist entrepreneurs taking advantage of the internet to sell their products," says the report.

While the effects of many of these drugs are unknown, some experts warn against a rush to legislate. Referring to the UK's ban on legal highs, Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch of the Open Society Institute says that banning these "untested, potentially dangerous" drugs will only result in somebody developing a "a new chemical cocktail."

"Lawmakers run the risk of spurring the creation of new untested, even more dangerous, drugs to circumvent the law," she writes on Huffington Post.

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

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.

EU commission attacks 'legal highs'

The EU commission has proposed to make it easier to ban "legal highs" and for countries to jail people who ignore bans.

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