Home > New psychoactive substances in Europe conference, Poznan.

Stokes, Siobhán ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2406-0879 (2017) New psychoactive substances in Europe conference, Poznan. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 60, Winter 2017, pp. 20-21.

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On 26‒27 October 2016, the Polish Reitox Focal Point and National Bureau for Drug Prevention held a conference on new psychoactive substances (NPS) in Europe. The conference opened with an overview of EMCDDA and the EU Early Warning System (EWS), which monitors and responds to new drugs or trends in drug use. Information is fed into the EU EWS by national focal points; this information exchange can trigger the preparation of joint reports and a formal risk assessment process followed by control measures as required.


There have been over 600 NPS notified to the EMCDDA and, of these, approximately two-thirds have been notified since 2012. The biggest group of NPS is synthetic cannabinoids followed by cathinones. Synthetic benzodiazepines and synthetic opioids have recently emerged, including extremely potent synthetic fentanyls. There is no sign of a decrease in this flow of new drugs with 98 new psychoactive substances reported in 2015. While approximately 250 of these drugs are internationally controlled, the rest are not.


‘Chasing the white rabbit’

The analogy ‘chasing the white rabbit’ described a common theme throughout many presentations, that is, legislation introduced to ban NPS has driven the production of new substances, some worse than the originally banned substances. While ‘brick and mortar’ shops selling NPS have been largely eliminated, the market has simply moved online. Chinese manufacturers of NPS are reportedly capable of creating any drug upon request, including providing the precursor if desired, packaging and describing the product in any way requested, and advising on additional protective measures and new ways to transport.


The 2016 EU drug markets report states that:


Globalised supply chains and the internet play a major role in driving the availability of new substances in Europe. Underpinning this growth is the ability to order bulk quantities of new substances from companies in China and to transport them rapidly to Europe by air or sea. Actors in the EU then package and market them either on the open market or directly on the illicit drug market. 1


The near-impossible task of stemming the flow of NPS in the current globalised world was highlighted by Polish Customs officials, citing the enormous volumes of imports annually, extensive borders, increased flights, increased shipments, and millions of Customs declarations (often impossible to decipher). Misdeclarations are also common. The huge variety of NPS drugs and the rapid emergence of replacements when substances are banned cause difficulties in securing convictions for police across Europe, especially since a seizure may, after analysis, prove to be a non-controlled substance. Sanctions for the production and trafficking in NPS available to authorities in Poland include financial and administrative as well as penal sanctions.


Risk assessment and safety

At EU level, scientific risk assessment is separated from political decision; however; it is not possible to deal with the current numbers of NPS through this system and a three-stage assessment process is being progressed. The use of precautionary-based policies, adopted in a number of countries, as opposed to evidence-based policies (risk assessment) was discussed, posing the question ‘Are we doing the right thing?’


Information about safe doses and risks associated with NPS should be provided to NPS users as a harm reduction measure. Also, medical staff need to be better informed so they can best treat emergencies. The EMCDDA recommended the development of hospital emergencies data as an instrument to be included in routine reporting.2In Poland, medical staff are required to report all NPS intoxications centrally, and this information is submitted to the Ministry of Health. Collated data can quickly alert authorities to dangers, such as the introduction of a new substance on the market. The health indicator monitored in Poland is medical interventions per 100 000, which reached 7284 in 2015, including 1627 in the 16‒18 years age group and 2817 in the 19‒24 years age group. The highest users of NPS are 19‒24-year-olds (who were initially exposed to these substances as teenagers from 2008 onwards).


Peaks in intoxications occurred prior to planned legislative changes, when suppliers offered sales and promotions on products about to be banned. Suppliers immediately responded to bans with a range of new substances and promotions, such as offering free samples as ‘testers’. In Poland, deaths attributed to NPS increased from 3 in 2013 to 22 in 2015. In Estonia, the main problem drugs are fentanyls (in Talinn) and amphetamines (in Narva). Drug-related deaths in Estonia decreased from 170 in 2012 to 88 in 2015. This is attributed to the naloxone programme introduced in 2013; 1336 personnel have been trained in the use of naloxone to treat opioid overdose, including 1054 drug users.


Research and information gathering

The need for better ways to monitor and gain insight and understanding of NPS users was advocated throughout the conference. This is regarded as essential to order to elucidate the attraction of these drugs and thereby help prevent social harm. Different aspects of information gathered by the I-TREND project carried out in several European countries were described.3 This multifaceted project included:

  • Automated analysis of online shops using a prototype software acting as a ‘robot’ trawling forums4
  • Purchase and analysis of NPS online (The most reliable sources for online purchase were in the UK.)
  • Survey of online users to identify motivations of NPS users and circumstances of use
  • Analysis of national preferences 

The survey of online NPS users found 72% were males aged 15‒24, most were in education, living in cities and polydrug users. The reason(s) for taking these drugs included to socialise (53%), get high (51%), modify perception (47.5%), relax (32.5%), and personal curiosity (44.5%). Further research was presented based on analysis of 1 281 660 posts from internet forums identifying the motivation of users, the context of NPS use (where used and with whom), substance trajectories, and characteristics of users. NPS users were then categorised as six different types: scientist experts; experimenters; kami-kase cyborgs; novices; superman; or partygoers.

The need for a change of attitude towards drug users was also advocated. It was argued that since it will never be possible to reduce drug use to zero, rather than penalising users, a better approach would be to promote a healthy lifestyle in the same way that alcohol and tobacco use are addressed.


Collaboration and sharing of analytical information

Collaboration and sharing of analytical information was the final theme explored. European data-sharing initiatives include:

  • EMCDDA’s European Database on New Drugs (EDND): this is under redevelopment to improve information and searchability of the database. A pilot will launch in 2017.
  • EU Joint Research Centre Directorate: cloud spectroscopy for identification and monitoring of new psychoactive substances aims to provide fast recognition of NPS5 and unknown chemicals, harmonised analytical methods, investigation of fast screening with handheld device and electronic repository of Nitrogen/phosphorus detector data.

A challenge in compiling and sharing data is that chemical data are formatted differently in various databases with a wide range of vendor-specific formats for each drug, proprietary spectra formats, and complex data streams. There is also a need for a unique way to unambiguously name compounds, as current systematic chemical naming protocols can give several variants to the same molecule.


  1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) (2016) EU drug markets report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/publications/2373/TD0216072ENN.PDF
  2. EMCDDA (2016) 2016–18 strategy and work programme and 2016 annual work programme. Available online at http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/work-programmes-and-strategies/2016-work-programme
  3. For more information on I-TREND, visit http://www.i-trend.eu/
  4. Open source software available online at https://github.com/I-TREND/SASF
  5. European Commission (2016) Fostering the detection of ‘legal highs’. Available online at https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/fostering-detection-legal-highs; Systematic analytical characterization of new psychoactive substances: a case study. Available online at https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/publication/systematic-analytical-characterization-new-psychoactive-substances-case-study
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
New psychoactive substance
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Screening / Assessment
Issue Title
Issue 60, Winter 2017
January 2017
Page Range
pp. 20-21
Health Research Board
Issue 60, Winter 2017

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