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'Legal Highs': New Synthetic Drugs Flood EU Market

The synthetic drug known as 'bath salts' is one of hundreds to recently hit the market. Zoom
AP

The synthetic drug known as 'bath salts' is one of hundreds to recently hit the market.

Last year, some 73 new psychoactive substances were identified by the European Union, according to statistics presented on Tuesday. The long-term effects of these so-called "legal highs," sold online and in specialty stores often under fake labels, are little known.

A new European Union report shows a sharp rise in synthetic drugs -- so-called "legal highs" that are often deceptively labelled and sold on the Internet. While there are some signs that the use of heroin, cocaine and cannabis are declining, the study posits that these are being replaced by "new synthetic drugs and patterns of use."

The findings are part of the "European Drug Report," presented on Tuesday by the EU's drugs agency, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

In 2012 alone, reads the report, 73 new psychoactive substances were identified by EU member states through the body's early warning system, compared to only 24 such substances that were identified in 2009. These new psychoactive substances are developed to mimic the effects of controlled drugs.

New Drugs, Unknown Implications

Substances come and go quickly, though some will establish themselves on the illicit market. The EU early warning system received a report of a new substance about once every week in 2013, says the study. The lack of pharmacological and toxicological data on the substances "means it is hard to speculate on long-term health implications of use," the report says.

"The growing availability of 'new psychoactive substances' that are not controlled under international drug control treaties represents a relatively new development on European drug markets," it continues. "Commonly produced outside of Europe, these substances can be obtained through online retailers, specialized shops, and are also sometimes being sold along with controlled substances on the illicit drug market."

The term "legal highs" is often a misnomer, as the substances are quickly controlled in parts of the EU through the early warning system. To avoid controls, the drugs "are often mislabelled, for example as 'research chemicals' or 'plant food' with disclaimers that state the product is not intended for human consumption." By January 2012, the EU had identified 693 online shops offering new psychoactive substances to European consumers.

The European Commission is currently working on a proposal for strengthening the EU's response to new psychoactive substances.

One in Four Have Used Illegal Drugs

A quarter of European adults -- some 85 million people -- have used illegal drugs at some point in their lives, according to the EU study. Most report using cannabis (77 million) with lower rates for cocaine (14.5 million), amphetamines (12.7 million) and ecstasy (11.4 million). The UK ranks highest in cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy use, while Denmark and France consume the most cannabis.

There were about one million seizures of illicit drugs made in Europe in 2011, mostly small quantities confiscated from users and the majority from two countries: Spain and the United Kingdom. The most-seized drug by far in Europe is cannabis -- 41 percent of it marijuana, and 36 percent hash. Cocaine and crack are second at 10 percent.

In 2011, heroin seizure was at its lowest point in a decade -- the equivalent of half as much as was confiscated in 2001. Amphetamine and ecstasy remain the most commonly used synthetic stimulants in Europe, though methamphetamine's increasing availability in some markets is seeing it displace amphetamine. After taking a massive dip of about two-thirds between 2006 and 2011, there are some indications that ecstasy is making a mild resurgence.

The Internet poses a particular challenge when it comes to drug control, the study says, "both as a mechanism for rapid diffusion of new trends and as a burgeoning anonymous marketplace with global reach."

chw

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