A report by the European Union reveals that more than one new type of legal high goes on sale each week.
57 new legal highs have been detected so far this year, with the EU’s early warning system reporting the appearance of more than one new psychoactive drug on the market every week.
The rapid spread of the market in legal highs, partly driven by organised crime, is revealed in the annual report from the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published on Thursday.
The drug experts say that while cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines continue to be the main players for those taking stimulants across Europe, they are now competing with a growing number of emerging synthetic drugs. Cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines remain the most-used stimulants on the continent but they face growing competition from synthetic alternatives.
The report says that traditional hard drugs are failing to find new recruits in Britain, with a significant decline in the numbers of people entering specialist drug treatment for the first time for heroin.
New figures also show that the number of people dying from now-banned legal highs rose sharply between 2009 and 2010. A report for the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths revealed 43 people in the UK died after taking now-outlawed methcathinones in 2010, compared with five in 2009.
This is in spite of the total number of deaths from drugs throughout the UK fell from 2,182 in 2009 to 1,883 in 2010. The National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (NPSAD) said heroin-related deaths fell “significantly”; in 2010, it was involved in 41% of all drug-related fatalities, compared to a proportion of 53% the previous year.
Most of the new psychoactive substances sold as legal highs and appearing on the European illicit market are synthesised outside Europe in China and, to a lesser extent, India. Organised crime groups are now reported to be involved in manufacturing the tablets and marketing them.
The annual European survey says the number of new psychoactive drugs being reported in the EU via its early warning system has risen from 24 in 2009 to 41 in 2010, 49 in 2011 and 57 so far this year.
The EU 2012 snapshot survey identified a marked rise in the number of shops offering synthetic cathinones, which can mimic the effects of cocaine, suggesting that online operators are looking for a replacement for mephedrone, which has been banned in Britain and across the EU.
The report said:
These drugs appear to have the potential for more widespread diffusion.
The speed with which these new substances are launched, combined with a lack of information on the risks associated with their use, challenges the established procedure of adding individual substances to the list of those controlled by drug laws.
The UK has introduced a system of temporary banning orders, which are introduced pending a full examination of the harms associated with a new substance.
Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for home affairs, said she was struck by the speed of developments in this area.
Stimulant and synthetic drugs play a central role in the European drug situation, creating a market that is fast moving, volatile and difficult to control.
More than ever before young people are being exposed to a plethora of powders and pills.
I think it is clear to all that strong and co-ordinated actions are required if we are to respond effectively in this area.