Growing threat of "designer drugs" in the European Union as report reveals youth attitude towards drugs

Photo: UNODC: ATS pills16 September 2011 - Illicit drugs and related problems are major concerns for European Union citizens and pose a threat to the safety and health of European society, particularly the increasing abuse by young people of unregulated synthetic substances.

While focus has previously been on "traditional" drugs such as heroin and cocaine, a recent UNODC report shows that amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) such as "ecstasy" and methamphetamine now rank as the world's second most widely abused drug type after cannabis. The report - the 2011 Global ATS Assessment - notes that the expansion of illicit trade in such substances and the high profits generated by that trade pose an increasing threat to security and health worldwide.

Europe, notably Western and Central Europe, continues to be an important market for amphetamines, in terms of both manufacture and use. While in most countries the main amphetamine-stype stimulants of concern continue to be amphetamine and "'ecstasy'-group substances", there is evidence that methamphetamine markets may be expanding. In addition, the appearance of new "designer drugs" such as mephedrone on the market constitutes a worrying new trend.

Substances such as mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone are sold as "bath salts" or "plant food" and act as substitutes for illicit stimulant drugs such as cocaine. Such substances are sold over the Internet and some have caused deaths.

Several European countries have reported an increase in the abuse and production of methamphetamine, and illicit methamphetamine laboratories have been discovered and raided by police in many European countries. There are also signs that that drug may be replacing amphetamine in some parts of Europe.

Meanwhile, a survey commissioned by the Directorate-General Justice of the European Commission shows that the majority of young Europeans support the continued ban of illegal drugs. The survey, entitled Youth attitudes on drugs: Analytical report measures trends in the attitudes of young people towards drugs, building on earlier surveys carried out in 2002, 2004 and 2008.

The results, released in June 2011, showed a broad consensus among young people (age 15-24)  in the European Union that heroin, cocaine and "ecstasy" should continue to be banned; 96 per cent of respondents were in favour of a continued ban on heroin, 94 per cent in favour of the continued prohibition of cocaine and 92 per cent in favour of the continued ban on "ecstasy".

With regard to cannabis, 59 per cent of respondents said that the sale and consumption of that substance should continue to be banned in the European Union, while 34 per cent were in favour of the introduction of a system that regulated its sale and use.

The situation is more complex when it comes to unregulated substances. Roughly one third (34 per cent) of respondents supported a general ban on "substances that imitate the effects of illicit drugs", while 15 per cent were in favour of some kind of regulation. Some 47 per cent thought it would be better to ban only those substances that posed a risk to health.

Overall, the legalization of illicit drugs is supported by just 13 per cent of young European Union citizens aged 15-24 and between 5 and 22 per cent of young persons in individual European Union member States. That proportion has not changed since 2008.

Related information:

UNODC: synthetic drugs and precursors

Flash Eurobarometer: analytical report on youth attitudes on drugs