Synthetic drugs: Australian and international trends

Synthetic drugs hit the headlines earlier this month following the death of a Sydney teenager who jumped from a third-floor balcony while under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance. They are again in the headlines this week after the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced it had arrested 225 people and seized 1,500 kilograms of synthetic drugs destined for the US and Australian markets. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) admitted in the World Drug Report 2013 that ‘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)’.

What drugs are we talking about?

While Australian governments and the media have been using the term ‘synthetic drugs’, this label actually encompasses a much broader range of substances than those in the news, including ‘traditional’ recreational drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy) and some performance/image enhancing drugs (such as steroids) and pharmaceuticals. The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) refers to ‘drug analogues and novel substances’ (DANS, the former are variants of a parent compound that is a prohibited drug; the latter mimic the effects of prohibited drugs but are not structurally analogous).
The UNODC, like the European Union, uses the narrower term ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS). The UNODC defines these as ‘substances of abuse … that are not controlled by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat’ (where ‘new’ refers to the misuse rather than the creation of the substance). The term NPS also has the advantage of including new plant-based drugs.
International trends
The UNODC (June 2013) indicates that, at the global level, the production and use of substances under international control such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants (including MDMA) has stabilised over the past decade. In contrast, the prevalence of NPS has grown rapidly over the same period.
In Europe, 73 NPS were identified for the first time through the EU Early Warning System in 2012, compared to 49 in 2011, 41 in 2010 and 24 in 2009, though the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol note that the continuing increases may be partly due to better detection and reporting.

Most of the NPS detected in the European drugs market are reported to be synthesised in China and India, which have also been identified as the sources of the drugs seized by the DEA earlier this week.
Another UNODC report, The challenge of new psychoactive substances (March 2013), which analysed the results of a survey to which 80 countries and territories responded, revealed:
  • 70 of the 80 countries and territories (87%) indicated that NPS were present in their drugs markets
  • the most widely reported NPS were ketamine (a hallucinogen sometimes referred to as ‘Special K’) and plant-based substances (both 83%), piperazines (such as BZP or ‘Legal E’) (77%) and synthetic cannabinoids (75%) and
  • a total of 251 NPS were identified in responses up to 2012, including 60 synthetic cannabinoids, 58 phenethylamines (generally these have stimulant effects) and 44 synthetic cathinones (such as 4-MMC, also commonly known as mephedrone or ‘miaow-miaow’).
As illustrated in the graph below, the composition of the NPS market has changed significantly over time.

Australian trends

The ACC’s Illicit Drugs Data Report 2011–12 states that DANS ‘have been present in notable quantities in Australia and overseas since at least the mid-2000s’. The quantitative data in the report is based on seizures of substances that are prohibited in Australia. Despite sometimes being marketed as ‘legal highs’, many DANS are prohibited under Australian laws.

As illustrated in the graph below, the number of seizures of material containing DANS has continually increased between 2006–07 and 2011–12, while the weight has fluctuated significantly.

The most prominent DANS seized at the border over that period have been cathinone-type substances (which accounted for around 47% of the number of analysed seizures in 2011–12), amphetamine-type substances (around 20%) and synthetic cannabinoids (around 6%). The most prevalent cathinone-type substances in 2011–12 by weight were MDMC, MDPV and DMMC, in contrast to earlier periods where 4-MMC was the most common.

Cathinone-type substances, amphetamine-type substances and synthetic cannabinoids have also been the most common among domestic seizures. The report cites difficulties with obtaining accurate and complete data due to the dynamic nature of the market, but notes that since 2007–08, States and Territories have indicated increases in the number and weight of domestic DANS seizures.

While not representative of the general population, the report also states that surveys of regular ecstasy users have indicated:
  • decreasing use of 4-MMC (from 16% in 2010, to 13% in 2011 and 5% in 2012) and
  • increased use of synthetic cannabinoids (from 6% in 2011 to 15% in 2012)
A further separate FlagPost will outline the key issues associated with new psychoactive substances and some of the measures being taken, or proposed, to address them.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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