Home > EMCDDA-Europol report on control of new psychoactive substances.

Connolly, Johnny (2010) EMCDDA-Europol report on control of new psychoactive substances. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 34, Summer 2010, pp. 18-19.

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A joint report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and European police agency Europol1 concludes that ‘the appearance of a large number of new unregulated synthetic compounds marketed on the Internet [and sold in head shops] as “legal highs” or “not for human consumption”, and specifically designed to circumvent drug controls, presents a growing challenge to current approaches to monitoring, responding to and controlling the use of new psychoactive substances’ (p.3). The report further states that a distinct feature of the ‘legal highs’ phenomenon is the speed at which suppliers target ‘specific groups of recreational drug users’, offering new unregulated alternatives in various guises, ‘from room odorisers, through herbal incenses, to bath salts, and different patterns of use, including herbal smokable mixes, snorting powders, tablets and liquid preparations for oral consumption’ (p.7). 

The report is the fifth annual report from the two agencies on the information exchange, the Early-Warning System (EWS) set up by Council decision 2005/387/JHA. The joint report provides evidence-based advice to the Council and the commission on the need to request a risk assessment on a new psychoactive substance. In gathering information about new psychoactive substances, the EMCDDA and Europol also collaborate with national EWSs, Reitox National Focal Points (NFPs), Europol National Units (ENUs), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and, where relevant, the World Health Organization (WHO).
During 2009, 24 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time in the EU, the highest number ever reported. All substances were synthetic. The emergence of new, smokable herbal products laced with synthetic cannabinoids (also referred to as ‘spice’) and the growing popularity of various synthetic cathinones is seen as the main cause of ‘significant new developments in the field of so-called “designer drugs”’ (p.3).
The report also provides information recently gathered by the EMCDDA and Europol about mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) and about the piperazine derivative mCPP, reported as being present in an increasing proportion of ecstasy tablets while the availability of MDMA on the market appears to be decreasing. Although the reason for the apparent decline in MDMA is unclear, the finding ‘corresponds with the growing number of legal alternatives to controlled drugs ... such as mephedrone’ (p.3). Mephedrone is sold as a legal high, an alternative to cocaine or ecstasy. A number of member states – Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Romania, Sweden and the UK – as well as Croatia and Norway, have recently introduced measures to control this substance. The report adds a note of caution in this respect: ‘In view of the growing popularity and sales of mephedrone, it is important to consider the threat that this may pose by creating momentum for an undesirable transition, from a mostly online “legal-highs” market, originally driven by individual entrepreneurship, to one that involves organised crime’ (p.15).
The report concludes with a review of the EWS achievements and also identifies some of the challenges which it may encounter during the coming years. Such challenges include ‘issues that relate to identifying, monitoring and understanding the nature of various new substances, which increasingly appear on the internet and on the European drug markets, as well as the innovation and sophistication of their marketing’ (pp.3–4). The EMCDDA is currently piloting an ‘internet snapshot’, or ‘multilingual audit of on-line shops which are EU-based or dispatch to EU Member States’ (p.7). In early 2010, the EMCDDA audited websites in 14 EU languages.
One challenge highlighted in the report relates to the importance of forensic and toxicology laboratories having access to reference materials (reference substances or seized substances), especially if they are to be able to identify new synthetic drugs about which limited scientific literature is available. Although the EWS has high reporting capabilities, the report concludes that ‘despite its speediness and capacity to triangulate information from different sources, it has no mandate or resources to anticipate and research the future market by actively purchasing, synthesising and studying new compounds’ (p.15).
1.   EMCDDA, Europol (2010) EMCDDA-Europol 2009 annual report on the implementation of Council Decision 2005/387/JHA. Lisbon: EMCDDA. Available at www.emcdda.europa.eu
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
New psychoactive substance
Issue Title
Issue 34, Summer 2010
Page Range
pp. 18-19
Health Research Board
Issue 34, Summer 2010
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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