Available indicators suggest there are no signs of a slowdown in the number, type or availability of new substances. A large number of substances are now sold openly as ‘legal’ replacements for illicit drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, heroin and benzodiazepines. The EU Early Warning System currently monitors more than 560 substances, which is more than double the number of drugs controlled under UN conventions. The market supplies both recreational and, increasingly, chronic and marginalised drug users. A characteristic of this market is that producers are adept at reacting to and even anticipating legal and regulatory controls by rapidly developing and introducing new substances.
Globalised supply chains and the internet play a major role in driving the availability of new substances in Europe. Underpinning this growth is the ability to order bulk quantities of new substances from companies in China and to transport them rapidly to Europe by air or sea. Actors in the EU then package and market them either on the open market or directly on the illicit drug market. Given the large profits and low risk of operating in this area, it is possible that criminal organisations will become even more active. In this respect, there are signals suggesting an increase in the production of a range of new substances in Europe.
Entrepreneurs have developed sophisticated and aggressive marketing techniques related to new substances. This includes the development of distinct but overlapping markets such as ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ and ‘dietary supplements’. Bricks-and-mortar shops and online shops are important sources of supply.
As the availability of new substances has increased there has also been an increase in serious harms, particularly acute poisonings, sometimes resulting in death; they also include broader public health and social harms, such as those caused by chronic and marginalised drug users switching from injecting heroin to synthetic cathinones. Some new substances can pose an immediate and pronounced threat to public health, causing outbreaks of mass poisonings. Others may cause outbreaks of blood-borne viruses and bacterial infections. In the past couple of years, the EU has experienced such outbreaks caused by synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic opioids.