EMCDDA publishes latest insights into NPS in Europe

In a new update from the EU Early Warning System (EWS) on new psychoactive substances (NPS) (1), the EMCDDA releases today its latest insights in this area entitled Fentanils and synthetic cannabinoids: driving greater complexity into the drug situation.

This is the second update from the EU Early Warning System. In these publications, the EMCDDA aims to provide some insights into what is happening with new psychoactive substances in Europe, based on data from the agency’s early warning and risk assessment activities. This issue covers the period from January 2016 until December 2017, with aggregated data on seizures reported by law enforcement limited to 2016 data. A focus of this publication is the new fentanils (which form the large majority of the new synthetic opioids that have been reported in Europe) and the synthetic cannabinoids.

Since the previous publication, in March 2015, there have been a number of major developments in Europe (EMCDDA, 2015). Some of these are encouraging. The number of new substances reported for the first time each year during 2016 and 2017 has fallen by around 40 % compared with 2015. Much of this is related to a decrease in the number of new synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones appearing each year. In part, this may reflect the results of sustained efforts to control new substances in Europe, including their open sale as ‘legal highs’ on the high street. Law enforcement operations in China leading to the closure of laboratories making these substances might be another reason.

Other developments are less encouraging. The analysis presented here suggests that the availability of many new substances remains relatively high and, in places, stronger links are developing with the established illicit drug market. It also appears that there is increasing interest from crime groups in making new substances, such as synthetic cathinones, in Europe. Another major challenge in the last few years has been the large number of highly potent new substances that have appeared on the market. These pose a high risk of life-threatening poisoning to users and are capable of causing explosive outbreaks that can overwhelm local healthcare systems. In some circumstances, law enforcement and laboratory personnel may be at risk of poisoning from occupational exposure. These substances are also easier to conceal and smuggle, with a few grams sufficient to make many thousands of doses for the drug market. Given the globalised nature of the market, these substances can pose a serious cross-border threat to health. Currently, two groups that particularly stand out in this respect are the new synthetic opioids (particularly the fentanils) and the synthetic cannabinoids.

The report underlines the importance of continued investment in strong EU and national early-warning systems as well as a more rapid risk-assessment process at EU level to protect the health and security of people living in Europe. A new EU legislative framework, coming into force later this year, will play a central role in achieving these aims.