What are NPS?
Marketed as ’legal highs‘, new psychoactive substances (NPS) are proliferating at an unprecedented rate, posing a significant risk to public health and a challenge to drug policy. Often, little is known about the adverse health effects and social harms of NPS, which pose a considerable challenge for prevention and treatment. Monitoring, information sharing and risk awareness are needed to counter this new drug problem.
NPS have been known in the market by terms such as “legal highs”, “bath salts” and “research chemicals”. To promote clear terminology on this issue, UNODC 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 become available on the market.
What are the risks of NPS?
The use of NPS is often linked to health problems. In general, side effects of NPS range from seizures to agitation, aggression, acute psychosis as well as potential development of dependence. NPS users have frequently been hospitalized with severe intoxications. Safety data on toxicity and carcinogenic potential of many NPS are not available or very limited, and information on long-term adverse effects or risks are still largely unknown. Purity and composition of products containing NPS are often not known, which places users at high risk as evidenced by hospital emergency admissions and deaths, sometimes associated with poly-substance use.
Global emergence of new psychoactive substances, up to December 2018:
Source: UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS, 2019.
How widespread are NPS?
NPS have become a global phenomenon with 119 countries and territories from all regions of the world having reported one or more NPS. Up to December 2018, 888 substances have been reported to the UNODC Early Warning Advisory (EWA) on NPS by Governments, laboratories and partner organisations. NPS available on the market have similar effects as substances under international control such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) or methamphetamine. Looking at the effects of NPS that have been reported until December 2018, the majority are stimulants, followed by synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists and classic hallucinogens.
Proportion of new psychoactive substances, by psychoactive effect group, up to December 2018:
Source: UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS, 2019.
Note: The analysis of the pharmacological effects comprises NPS registered up to December 2018. Plant-based substances were excluded from the analysis as they usually contain a large number of different substances, some of which may not have been known and whose effects and interactions are not fully understood.
Categories of NPS sold in the market
The main substance groups of NPS are aminoindanes (e.g. 5,6-methylenedioxy-2-aminoindane (MDAI)), synthetic cannabinoids (e.g. APINACA, JWH-018), synthetic cathinones (e.g. 4-methylethcathinone (4-MEC) and α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (α –PVP)), phencyclidine-type substances (e.g. methoxetamine (MXE)), phenethylamines (e.g. 2C-E and 25H-NBOMe), piperazines (e.g. benzylpiperazine (BZP) and 1-(3-chlorophenyl) piperazine (mCPP)), plant-based substances (e.g. kratom (mitragyna speciosa Korth), salvia divinorum and khat (Catha edulis)), tryptamines (e.g. α-methyltryptamine (AMT)), and other substances (e.g. 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA)). Learn more about the various NPS substance groups on the market here.
What is the legal situation of NPS?
Since NPS are not controlled under the International Drug Control Conventions, their legal status can differ widely from country to country. Up to 2018, over 60 countries have implemented implemented legal responses to control NPS, with many countries having used or amended existing legislation and others having used innovative legal instruments. Several countries where a large number of different NPS has rapidly emerged, have adopted controls on entire substance groups of NPS using a so-called generic approach, or have introduced analogue legislation that invokes the principal of “chemical similarity” to an already controlled substance to control substances not explicitly mentioned in the legislation. At the international level, up to March 2018, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs decided to place 39 NPS under international control. These control measures have to be implemented into the national legal framework of each country. To find more information on the various legal responses in place around the world, click here.
How is UNODC assisting Governments in this area?
To assist Member States in the identification and reporting of NPS, UNODC established the Early Warning Advisory (EWA) on NPS, which serves as a monitoring tool and knowledge hub - offering information on NPS trends, harms, national legislative responses as well as technical information - to policy-makers, laboratories and law enforcement officers. To enhance the forensic capacity of national drug laboratories, UNODC prepared a number of manuals on the identification and analysis of fentanyl and its analogues, piperazines, synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones. Selected chemical reference standards are also distributed to forensic laboratories as part of the UNODC International Quality Assurance Program. In addition, training and awareness raising workshops for laboratories and law enforcement are provided.