New Psychoactive Substances
The world is witnessing an alarming new drug problem – and much of the drugs are legal. Marketed as “legal highs”, “research chemicals”, “plant food” and “bath salts,” NPS are proliferating at an unprecedented rate and posing significant public health challenges. The total number of such substances, already estimated to be in the hundreds, is growing steadily. Mixtures of NPS bought unknowingly by users have resulted in unpredictable and sometimes disastrous effects.
What are NPS?
These new psychoactive substances (NPS) have been known in the market by terms such as “designer drugs”, “legal highs”, “herbal highs”, “bath salts”, “research chemicals”, “laboratory reagents”. To promote clear terminology on this issue, UNODC only uses the term “new psychoactive substances (NPS)” which are defined as “substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation, that are not controlled by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat”. The term “new” does not necessarily refer to new inventions — several NPS were first synthesized 40 years ago — but to substances that have recently emerged on the market and which have not been scheduled under the above Conventions.
The use of NPS is often linked to health problems. NPS users have frequently been hospitalized with severe intoxications. There have also been a number of unexplained suicides associated with preceding use of synthetic cannabinoids (Spice). In addition, substances like 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone), methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), 4-methylamphetamine (4-MA) have been associated with fatalities.
How widespread are NPS?
According to the UNODC report “The challenge of new psychoactive substances”, NPS have become a global phenomenon and all regions of the world have been affected by it. 70 (out of 80) countries and territories surveyed (88%) reported the emergence of NPS.
UNODC research found more than 250 substances, including ketamine, which were reported by Governments and laboratories around the world. This figure is greater than the 234 substances scheduled under the international drugs conventions. In February 2013, five new substances were reported by drug analysis laboratories. Technically, the number of potential derivatives is unlimited. As long as there is no global monitoring mechanism on such substances, information on them will remain inconsistent.
What is the legal situation?
NPS are not under international control. Many countries have established permanent control measures for some substances or issued temporary bans. Only a handful of NPS have been reviewed by the mechanism established under the international drugs conventions. Responses in this area are likely to be most effective if they are coordinated across countries and regions. NPS are also a challenge for prevention and treatment. Objective and credible information is needed. In this respect, it is particularly important to create risk awareness among young people. Prevention measures should also target experienced drug users.
How can I find out more about NPS?
UNODC has reviewed the appearance of NPS in global markets and issued the first global overview of information on these substances and their use as well as a list of the substances reported to it in 2012. The 2013 World Drug Report has also dedicated its Thematic Chapter to this issue. On the occasion of World Dug Day on 26th June 2013, a secure online Early Warning Advisory has been launched, to assist Member States in the identification of NPS. Further developments will follow providing policy-makers and experts with a knowledge hub on NPS.
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