New substances — here to stay? (EU Drug Markets Report)

New substances — here to stay?

Case study 15: Mephedrone — once a temporary replacement for MDMA, now more than that?

In the late 2000s, first mCPP, then BZP and finally mephedrone were new substances used by OCGs to plug the gap in the availability of MDMA in Europe that resulted from the reduced availability of precursor chemicals. For a time ecstasy tablets containing MDMA in the Netherlands became increasingly less common, and most tablets contained new substances. Similar situations were seen in other European countries (Vogels et al., 2009; EMCDDA, 2011; Brunt et al., 2011, 2012a,b). In the case of mephedrone the rationale for its use was quite obvious: multi-kilogram quantities of the substance could be bought relatively cheaply from China, and easily imported in to Europe. In addition, most users found its effects were acceptable — certainly in comparison with mCPP and BZP, whose effects made them unacceptable substitutes for MDMA (Brunt et al., 2012b). Since then, it appears that mephedrone is specifically sought by some user groups, including chronic and marginalised drug users (Public Health England, 2015). It is tempting to speculate that the pharmacology of mephedrone — with some similarities with MDMA, cocaine and methamphetamine — is one of the reasons for this.

It is too early to tell what the fate will be for many new substances. In part this is because they have only recently appeared on the market; societies and their (sub)cultures also change and, as they do, so do their tastes and demands. In addition, at least initially, it can be difficult to distinguish a longer-term adoption of a substance from what is merely a passing fad. The latter may be driven, in part, by the fact that a new substance is more readily available than an illicit drug. Interestingly, it appears that controlling such a substance may lead to its disappearance from the market and hence a reduction in use simply because there is no specific demand for it. Overall, making broad predictions about NPS as a whole group is difficult and could be potentially misleading. Nonetheless, case studies of different new substances suggest that they are disrupting the illicit market and creating new markets as well as helping support the illicit market.

In some cases, new substances are used as temporary replacements for illicit drugs. They may also displace — either temporarily or more permanently — illicit drugs. In some countries, shortages of heroin coupled with increased availability of synthetic cathinones have led to a general shift towards the latter. In addition, recent data from the Netherlands suggests that while initially most new substance use was unintentional, being related to their use to adulterate illicit drugs, in the past few years there has been an increase in the use of some new substances in their own right (Hondebrink et al., 2015). It will be important to follow these developments carefully.

Some new substances pose a challenge as a group, such as the synthetic cannabinoids. In this case, suppliers care less about a specific substance and more about mimicking, broadly speaking, the pharmacological effects of cannabis. In essence each synthetic cannabinoid is disposable: as soon as a substance is controlled, or even before, manufacturers can have one or more replacement substances ready for sale, while suppliers and retailers can have ‘legal’ replacement products on the shelves.

Since the late 1960s, only a relatively small number of drugs have emerged beyond small-scale experimental use by psychonauts, gained a foothold on the market and diffused to broader sections of the population. Ketamine, GHB, and particularly MDMA are prominent examples of such substances. However, the diffusion of these substances was not the speedy affair that was portrayed by much of the popular media. As an example, although MDMA was first detected on the illicit drug market in the 1970s, broader use only occurred some 10–15 years later. The same also appears to be true for some new psychoactive substances, and in many cases it may simply be too early to predict what will happen to many of them. One possible substance that appears to have created a specific demand and carve its own distinct market share is mephedrone (see Case study 15).

Finally, given the nature of the market and the continuous stream of new substances, it is unfeasible that all of them can be controlled. In October 2015, the Chinese government controlled 116 new substances — which is just over the number currently identified each year in Europe. It is unlikely that any regulatory system can be designed to sufficiently limit the stream of new substances being manufactured without resorting to a ban on a huge range of chemicals.