New psychoactive substances: Key challenges and responses

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New psychoactive substances: Key challenges and responses

Posted 3/07/2013 by Cat Barker

As outlined in an earlier FlagPost, the availability and use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have increased globally over the past decade. This has created new public health and law enforcement challenges that existing frameworks have failed to address, prompting a search for workable alternatives.

False sense of safety associated with use

NPS are often marketed as ‘legal highs’ and professionally packaged, which can give the impression that they are safer to use than illicit drugs with similar effects. However, very little is known about their health impacts, partly due to the dynamic nature of the market and because the content and concentration of different batches of the same branded product may vary. A NSW Parliamentary inquiry was advised that synthetic cannabis products could actually be more harmful than cannabis itself, and that NPS may present a higher risk of overdose. 

Number of NPS entering the market
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) observed in June 2013 that ‘the multitude of new psychoactive substances and the speed with which they have emerged in all regions of the world is one of the most notable trends in drug markets over the past five years’.
In a submission to the NSW inquiry, one forensic science facility stated that new products claiming to be legal highs were submitted for testing every week. The NZ Ministry of Health advised that it had classified 31 NPS, but knew of around 2,000 cannabis mimics, ‘with the potential for there to be tens of thousands more’.
Ease of evading prohibitions
To date, measures to address NPS internationally and in individual countries have mainly involved their listing as prohibited substances. This has proven ineffective.
A 2011 UK report outlines a typical example:
Despite the broad chemical generic ban on psychoactive cathinones imposed in April 2010, suppliers were able to find some loopholes, and within days a naphthyl derivative, Naphthylpyrovalerone (commonly referred as NRG-1) which lay outside the generic scope was offered for sale by internet retailers – advertised as “the legal alternative to mephedrone”.

When NSW prohibited seven synthetic cannabinoids in July 2011, ‘manufacturers quickly re-synthesised their products, replacing banned compounds with other synthetic cannabinoids not covered by the ban’. WA had the same experience in June 2011, with alternative synthetic cannabinoids on the market within days of its ban.
NPS are widely available through tobacconists, adult stores and online. In a UNODC survey, 88% of countries with a domestic NPS market indicated that the internet was a key source for NPS.
Monitoring by an EU agency identified 693 online stores in 2012 selling NPS within Europe (up from 314 in January 2011 and 170 in January 2010). Between July 2011–July 2012, Australian researchers similarly identified:
  • 43 unique online stores selling stimulant/psychedelic NPS to Australian consumers
  • 212 unique products with purported stimulant/psychedelic effects and
  • 86 unique chemical substances.

Recent and proposed Australian responses
Recent measures at the national level include:
  • the decision in February 2012 to create a group entry in Schedule 9 (Prohibited Substances) of the Poisons Standard, covering all synthetic cannabinomimetics except those separately specified (the Standard represents recommendations to States/Territories on the level of control that should apply to a substance)
  • moving the list of substances to which the Commonwealth’s serious drug offences apply from the Act to regulations in May 2013 to facilitate faster listing of NPS and
  • on 18 June 2013, a national interim ban under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 on 19 named products and products that contain any of 20 substances already prohibited under the Poisons Standard (following interim bans on the same products in NSW and SA).

On 16 June 2013, the Government announced plans to ban the importation of NPS based on a ‘reverse onus of proof’ under which ‘new drugs coming onto the market are presumed to be illegal until the authorities know what they are and clear them as safe and legal’. The announcement states such a system already operates in Ireland and is due to begin in NZ in August 2013, but the Irish and proposed NZ systems are actually quite different.
The NZ Bill would allow psychoactive substances to be legally sold where the manufacturer can demonstrate they present no more than a low risk to users. The Irish system instead represents a prohibitionist approach. Advocates for a public health-based response, including representatives of the Australian National Council on Drugs, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and the Greens health spokesperson, are hoping Australia’s response will resemble NZ’s.
The Government also announced a national drug monitoring system that will ‘[make] use of existing intelligence sharing networks and information sources from around Australia and internationally’. This sounds like a more modest version of the EU’s Early Warning System, which the NSW Parliamentary inquiry recommended be replicated in Australia.
The Commonwealth proposals will be discussed at a meeting of Police Ministers on 4–5 July 2013.

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