South Asia: Emergence of 'new psychoactive substances' raises alarm bells


Designer drugs, herbal highs, legal highs, bath salts - the rapid emergence of 'new highs' is a cause for grave concern, also in South Asia.  These so-called 'new psychoactive substances' (NPS) are chemically and physically similar to well-known illicit drugs, but are synthesized in such a manner that they do not fall under international control.

When consumed, they are known to often have serious effects like kidney failure, seizures, hallucinations, hypertension and loss of memory. The rapid proliferation of NPS has raised alarm bells the world over. In 2009, there were 166 known NPS. In 2013, the number has more than doubled. New substances are emerging almost daily with few data available on their use. 

Some of the known NPS include synthetic cathinones popularly known as 'plant food' and 'bath salts' which are similar to amphetamine and methamphetamine. They are mostly ingested. Ketamine, popularly known as 'kit kat' and 'super k' is often sold as ecstasy, while 'benny bear' and 'flying angel' are piperazines which are orally ingested. 

NPS are usually produced in clandestine laboratories or diverted by licensed manufactures. The lack of control and data on these substances makes it challenging for law enforcement to clamp down on the manufacture, trafficking and distribution of NPS.

Owing to this rising concern, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Services and the Indian Customs organized a three-day South Asian Regional Integration Seminar (SARIS) on new psychoactive substances and drug precursors. The seminar offered customs officials from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka a platform to share their experience of and expertise in dealing with NPS and precursor chemicals.

There was a general consensus that in the region diversion of precursors /controlled substances which are used for the production of NPS, happens more domestically than through international borders. Participants also discussed the rise in addiction of pharmaceutical preparations; and the diversion of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are precursor chemicals used for illicit drug production. Seizure data suggests that large quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are diverted from the thriving pharmaceutical industry in the region. 

Experts from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and Indian Government representatives shared some good practices in responding to the threats posed by NPS and precursors. Key to addressing these new challenges is a multi-faceted balanced approach including (i) the establishment of effective data collection and analysis mechanisms, (ii) the implementation of an effective early warning system and (iii) developing unambiguous legislation which helps law enforcement and criminal justice officers to effectively prosecute and sentence traffickers.  

The seminar helped raise awareness on the risks of NPS. Participants agreed to continue to exchange information and ideas in tackling NPS and to use existing UNODC tools to sensitise their fellow officers.

The workshop was organized jointly by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Services, the Indian Customs and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime thanks to financial contribution from the Government of Australia.