Tracking designer drugs, legal highs and bath salts

Photo: UNODC1 November 2012 - "Designer drugs", "legal highs" or "bath salts" -  whatever they are labelled as, psychoactive substances have become a major concern in all regions of the world, particularly given their considerable public health consequences and their potentially even fatal effects.

The term "new psychoactive substances" covers a wide range of substances that often have pharmacological properties and effects similar to those of internationally controlled drugs. This diverse group includes synthetic cathinones, which are similar in structure to amphetamines and synthetic cannabinoids in mimicking the effects of THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis. Piperazines, often sold as ecstasy, are another group of new psychoactive substances that were first encountered in established markets for amphetamine-type stimulants.

While new drugs have always appeared on illicit drug markets, the pace at which such substances have emerged in recent years has accelerated considerably. Last year in Europe alone, 49 new psychoactive substances were reported to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

No such figures are available at the global level, however, owing to the absence of an early warning system for these substances.

To fill this gap, UNODC operates a network of drug-testing laboratories through the international collaborative exercises programme, which for the first time allows laboratories from around the globe to monitor their performance in drug testing. Participating drug-testing laboratories also report at six-month intervals on the new substances that they have analysed.

Psychoactive substances


More than 100 laboratories participate in the exercises.  In 2011, 42 per cent of 128 laboratories from 48 countries reported new psychoactive substances, mostly synthetic cathinones such as mephedrone ("m-cat" and "bubbles") or methylenedixoypyrovalerone (MDPV, "ivory wave" and "cloud 9"). Synthetic cannabinoids (often sold as "spice" or "K2") are also analysed frequently, although the emergence of piperazines appeared to be declining in 2011.

The past two years have been characterized by increasing diversity of products, as manufacturers of new psychoactive substances adapt their products almost endlessly. "The variety, the changing physical forms and the constant modifications in labelling make it difficult for law enforcement and other drug control authorities to identify new psychoactive substances," noted Justice Tettey, Chief of the Laboratory and Scientific Section of UNODC. "Laboratories do not often have the capacities to analyse these new psychoactive substances, and UNODC calls on Governments to support their drug-analysis laboratories in this process."

UNODC operates the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) programme to shed light on emerging trends and developments in the fast-changing world of synthetic drugs. The current UNODC Global SMART Update, available in English and Spanish, provides an overview on the various new psychoactive substances available on illicit drug markets and highlights the challenges they pose to the international community.

Related Information:

European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) programme

UNODC Global SMART Update

UNODC's International Collaborative Exercises