Different approaches to a multi-faceted problem: the legal response to psychoactive substances

Photo: Central Narcotics Bureau, Singapore 17 September 2015 - New psychoactive substances (NPS) that could pose serious risks to public health and safety continue to be sold on the synthetic drugs market as 'legal' alternatives to internationally controlled drugs. These substances are designed to bypass national and international laws that aim to protect public health and safety.

Different regional patterns on NPS emergence are observed across the world, with many countries having experienced the rapid emergence of a large number of these substances, some of which are sold openly in shops or ordered online and delivered by mail services. In response to this situation and in accordance with their needs, the international community and individual Governments have made use of different approaches that reflect the complexity of the problem towards establishing an appropriate legal framework to control NPS. UNODC's Director for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, noted that "the continued growth of new psychoactive substances over the last years has become a truly global phenomenon and presents a major policy challenge to the international community."

Different types of controls have been put in place at the national level. 52 out of 56 countries reviewed at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2015 have amended their existing list of controlled substances to include specific NPS (known as "individual listing"). In regions where the emergence of a significant variety of NPS has been reported, such as Europe and North America, controls on entire groups of NPS (i.e. generic legislation) or new legislation such as a general ban on the distribution of NPS have been adopted. Other countries have resorted to using existing medicine legislation, consumer protection laws, customs acts, and analogue provisions within their drug control framework to control NPS.

"A coordinated approach by Member States was evidenced at the CND, when the Commission decided for the first time to place 10 of these substances [1] under international control", said Mr. Lemahieu. "Member States have also been very active in implementing national legal responses to tackle NPS and in sharing experiences with other Member States to inform options for policy responses to address this challenge".

UNODC operates the Global SMART Update to shed light on emerging trends and developments in the fast-changing world of synthetic drugs. More detailed information on recent legal responses adopted by different countries to control NPS is provided in the most recent Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) programme. A repository of data on legal responses adopted by individual countries is available to registered users at the UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS.

Further information:

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

UNODC's Early Warning Advisory on NPS

Global SMART Update Volume 14

UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section


[1] 25B-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe and 25I-NBOMe were included in Schedule I of the 1971 UN Convention; N-benzylpiperazine , JWH-018, AM-2201, mephedrone, 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone and methylone were added to Schedule II of the 1971 UN Convention; and AH-7921 was included in Schedule I of the 1961 UN Convention