New psychoactive substances — Introduction (EU Drug Markets Report)


Over the last decade, and particularly in the last 5 years, an increasing number of new substances have been detected on the European market, with two new substances detected every week. Under EU law, these drugs are known as new psychoactive substances (NPSs) and they constitute a broad group (). The increase in the number of these substances is the result of a significant shift in the way that drugs can now be manufactured, marketed and sold, which is driven by rapid changes in both technology and globalisation (Figure 7.1). The availability of potent new substances is no longer limited to clandestine production or the diversion of medicines, although these remain an important part of the overall market. Now, a huge range of substances can be made on a large scale by legitimate chemical companies half-way around the world, rapidly shipped to Europe, and then packaged into products — ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ and ‘food supplements’ — and sold off the shelf in the high street and on the web, as well as directly on the illicit drug market.

Figure 7.1

From synthesis to consumer 

Source: EMCDDA. 

Many of the NPS on the market in Europe today are sold openly as ‘legal’ replacements for cannabis, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, MDMA, benzodiazepines and LSD. Entrepreneurs and, increasingly, crime groups recognise that new substances often sit in a legal grey area, check drug laws to ensure the substances are not controlled and sometimes even go as far as to seek expert legal advice. They have also embraced mainstream marketing techniques so that potent drugs have effectively become ‘ordinary commodities’ with the result that, as well as an increase in the number of these substances, a wider range of substances are increasingly available to European citizens.

Since the first edition of this report (EMCDDA–Europol, 2013), our understanding of the market in NPS has improved significantly. However, the market is still young, and there remains a great deal to learn and understand about this highly dynamic threat and its likely impact on the health and security of Europe as a whole. Notwithstanding these limitations, many of the data discussed below, which are largely based on the analysis of signals identified from the EU Early Warning System, give serious cause for concern. The market apparently continues to grow; consumer groups are no longer limited to experimental users such as psychonauts and clubbers, but also include broader groups of recreational users, people who self-medicate, prisoners, people looking to improve their performance or how they look, as well as chronic and marginalised drug users; while the number of harms being reported is also increasing.

Table 7.1

Note: Data presented are for the EU plus Norway and Turkey.

Source: EMCDDA

Short title: 

(30) Council (Decision (EC) No 2005/387/JHA of 10 May 2005 on the information exchange, risk-assessment and control of new psychoactive substances, OJEU L 127, 20.05.2005, p. 32.