New psychoactive substances (NPS)

While new harmful substances have been emerging with unfailing regularity on the drug scene, the international drug control system is floundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity of the phenomenon known as new psychoactive substances (NPS).

The number of NPS reported by Member States to UNODC rose from 166 at the end of 2009 to 251 by mid-2012, an increase of more than 50 per cent. For the first time, the number of NPS actually exceeded the total number of substances under international control (234).

NPS are substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation, that are not controlled by international drug conventions, but which may pose a public health threat. In this context, the term "new" does not necessarily refer to new inventions but to substances that have newly become available in specific markets. In general, NPS is an umbrella term for unregulated (new) psychoactive substances or products intended to mimic the effects of controlled drugs.

Member States have responded to this challenge using a variety of methods within their legislative frameworks, by attempting to put single substances or their analogues under control.

It has generally been observed that, when a NPS is controlled or scheduled, its  use declines shortly thereafter, which has a positive impact on health-related consequences and deaths related to the substance, although the "substitution effect" has inhibited any in-depth research on the long-term impact of NPS scheduling. There are of course, instances when scheduling or controlling a NPS has had little or no impact. Generally, the following kinds of impacts have been observed after the scheduling of a NPS:

  • The substance remains on the market, but its use declines immediately. Examples include mephedrone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, BZP in New Zealand, "legal highs" in Poland, mephedrone in Australia and MDPV in the United States of America;
  • Use of the substance declines after a longer interval, maybe a year or more (e.g. ketamine in the United States);
  • Scheduling has little or no immediate impact on the use of the substance, e.g. 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as "ecstasy", in the United States and other countries.

Further, there are cases of NPS disappearing from the market. This has also been the case with the majority of the substances controlled under the 1961 Convention and the 1971 Convention. Of the 234 substances currently under international control, only a few dozen are still being misused, and the bulk of the misuse is concentrated in a dozen such substances.

It is obvious that legislations to control NPS are not a "one size fits all" solution, and there are always exceptions to the rule. However, a holistic approach which involves a number of factors - prevention and treatment, legal status, improving precursor controls and cracking down on trafficking rings - has to be applied to tackle the situation.

There is a lack of long-term data which would provide a much-needed perspective: no sooner is one substance scheduled, than another one replaces it, thus making it difficult to study the long-term impact of a substance on usage and its health effects.

The problem of NPS is a hydra-headed one in that manufacturers produce new variants to escape the new legal frameworks that are constantly being developed to control known substances. These substances include  synthetic  and plant-based psychoactive substances, and have rapidly spread in widely dispersed markets. Until mid-2012, the majority of the identified NPS were synthetic cannabinoids
(23 per cent), phenethylamines (23 per cent) and synthetic cathinones (18 per cent), followed by tryptamines (10 per cent), plant-based substances (8 per cent) and piperazines (5 per cent). The single most widespread substances were JWH-018 and JWH-073 among the synthetic cannabinoids; mephedrone, MDPV and methylone among the synthetic cathinones; and m-chlorophenylpiperazine (mCPP), N-benzylpiperazine (BZP) and 1-(3-trifluoromethylphenyl)piperazine (TFMPP) among the piperazines. Plant-based substances included mostly kratom, khat and Salvia divinorum.

What makes NPS especially dangerous and problematic is the general perception surrounding them. They have often been marketed as "legal highs", implying that they are safe to consume and use, while the truth may be quite different. In order to mislead the authorities, suppliers have also marketed and advertised their products aggressively and sold them under the names of relatively harmless everyday products such as room fresheners, bath salts, herbal incenses and even plant fertilizers.

Countries in nearly all regions have reported the emergence of NPS. The 2008-2012 period in particular saw the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones, while the number of countries reporting new phenethylamines, ketamine and piperazines declined (as compared with the period prior to 2008).

Origin and manufacture

While most widespread in Europe and North America, NPS seem to originate nowadays primarily in Asia (East and South Asia), notably in countries known for their advanced chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Domestic manufacture has also been reported by countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Nonetheless, the overall pattern is one of transregional trafficking which deviates from the clandestine manufacture of controlled psychotropic substances such as ATS, which typically occurs within the same region as where the consumers are located.

Role of technology

The Internet seems to play an important role in the business of NPS: 88 per cent of countries responding to a UNODC survey said that the Internet served as a key source for the supply in their markets. At the same time, a Eurobarometer survey found that just 7 per cent of young consumers of NPS in Europe (age 15-24) used the Internet to actually purchase such substances, indicating that, while the import and wholesale business in such substances may be increasingly conducted via the Internet, the end consumer still retains a preference for more traditional retail and distribution channels.

Spread of new psychoactive substances at the regional level

With its early warning system, comprising 27 European Union countries and Croatia, Norway and Turkey, Europe has the most advanced regional system in place to deal with emerging NPS.Through the early warning system, formal notification was provided for a total of 236 new substances during the 2005-2012 period, equivalent to more than 90 per cent of all substances found globally and reported to UNODC (251). The number of identified NPS in the European Union rose from 14 in 2005 to 236 by the end of 2012.

NPS seem to constitute a significant market segment already. Close to 5 per cent of people aged 15-24 have already experimented with NPS in the European Union, which is equivalent to one-fifth of the numbers who have tried cannabis and close to around half of the number who have used drugs other than cannabis. While cannabis use has clearly declined among adolescents and young people in Europe over the past decade, and the use of drugs other than cannabis has remained largely stable, the use of NPS  has gone up.

Within Europe, Eurobarometer data for 2011 suggest that five countries account for almost three-quarters of all users of NPS: United Kingdom (23 per cent of the European Union total), followed by Poland (17 per cent), France (14 per cent), Germany (12 per cent) and Spain (8 per cent). The United Kingdom is also the country that identified the most NPS in the European Union (30 per cent of the total during the 2005-2010 period).

The United States identified the largest number of NPS worldwide: for 2012 as a whole, a total of 158 NPS were identified, i.e. twice as many as in the European Union (73). The most frequently reported substances were
synthetic cannabinoids (51 in 2012, up from 2 in 2009) and synthetic cathinones (31 in 2012, up from 4 in 2009). Both have a serious negative impact on health. Excluding cannabis, use of NPS among students is more widespread than the use of any other drug, owing primarily to synthetic cannabinoids as contained in Spice or similar herbal mixtures. Use of NPS among youth in the United States appears to be more than twice as widespread as in the European Union.

In Canada, authorities identified 59 NPS over the first two quarters of 2012, i.e. almost as many as in the United States. Most of the substances were synthetic cathinones (18), synthetic cannabinoids (16) and phenethylamines (11). In a national school survey, widespread use was reported among tenth-grade students for Salvia divinorum (lifetime prevalence of 5.8 per cent), jimson weed or Datura (2.6 per cent), a hallucinogenic plant, and ketamine (1.6 per cent).

NPS are also making inroads in the countries of Latin America, even though, generally speaking, levels of misuse of such substances in the region are lower than in North America or Europe. Reported substances included ketamine and plant-based substances, notably Salvia divinorum, followed by piperazines, synthetic cathinones, phenethylamines and, to a lesser extent, synthetic cannabinoids. Brazil also reported the emergence of mephedrone and of DMMA (a phenethylamine) in its market; Chile reported the emergence of Salvia divinorum and tryptamine; Costa Rica reported the emergence of BZP and TFMPP, two piperazines.

For many years, New Zealand has played a key role in the market for piperazines, notably BZP. A large number of NPS are also found in Australia, similar to the situation in Europe and North America. Overall, 44 NPS were identified during the first two quarters of 2012 in the Oceania region, equivalent to one quarter of all such substances identified worldwide. Australia identified 33 NPS during the first two quarters of 2012, led by synthetic cathinones (13) and phenethylamines (8).

According to the UNODC survey undertaken in 2012, the second-largest number of countries reporting the emergence of NPS was in Asia. The emergence of such substances was reported from a number of countries and areas, mostly in East and South-East Asia (Brunei Darussalam; China; Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; Japan; Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; Viet Nam), as well as in the Middle East (Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates).

Hong Kong, China, reported the emergence of a number of synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018) and synthetic cathinones (4-methylethcathinone and butylone). Indonesia informed UNODC of the emergence of BZP. Singapore saw the emergence of a number of synthetic cannabinoids (including JWH-018) and synthetic cathinones (3-fluromethcathinone and 4-methylecathinone). Oman witnessed the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids (JWH-018). Japan reported the emergence of phenethylamines, synthetic cathinones, piperazines, ketamine, synthetic cannabinoids and plant-based substances.

The two main NPS in Asia in terms of consumption are ketamine and kratom, mostly affecting the countries of East and South-East Asia. Ketamine pills have been sold for several years as a substitute for "ecstasy" (and sometimes even as "ecstasy"). In addition, large-scale traditional consumption of khat is present in Western Asia, notably in Yemen.

In total, 7 African countries (Angola, Cape Verde, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Togo and Zimbabwe) reported the emergence of NPS to UNODC. Egypt reported not only the emergence of plant-based substances (Salvia divinorum) but also the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids, ketamine, piperazines (BZP) and other substances (2-diphenylmethylpiperidine (2-DPMP) and 4-benzylpiperidine). Nonetheless, the overall problems related to the production and consumption of NPS appear to be less pronounced in Africa. There are, however, a number of traditionally used substances (such as khat or ibogaine) that fall under the category of NPS and that, in terms of their spread, may cause serious health problems and other social consequences.

The road ahead

Scheduling or controlling a substance is a lengthy - and costly - process, especially as it is the authorities who bear the onus of proof. Additionally, controlling an ever-larger number of substances, affecting police, customs, forensic laboratories, import/export authorities and the health authorities, among others, may stretch some Member States beyond their capacities.
Alternative systems, "emergency scheduling", "analogue scheduling", "generic scheduling", application of the "medicines law" and other creative approaches, all have their pros and cons. Most have improved the situation and have taught valuable lessons in planning for future control regimes. However, what is missing is coordination at the global level so that drug dealers cannot simply exploit loopholes, both within regions and even within countries.
The establishment of a global early warning system is needed to inform Member States of emerging substances and to support them in their response to this complex and changing phenomenon. While the international drug control conventions offer the possibility of scheduling new substances, the sheer rapidity of emerging NPS makes this a very challenging undertaking. What is needed is an understanding and sharing of methods and lessons learned in regional responses to the situation involving NPS before exploring the setting up of a global response to the problem.

UNODC is pleased to announce on the occasion of the World Drug Day,  the launch of the UNODC Early Warning Advisory on new psychoactive substances, which will serve as a global monitoring system for new psychoactive substances.

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