The changing face of new psychoactive substances

This year’s analysis suggests that while responses, both in Europe and elsewhere, may be having an impact on the emergence of new substances, the new psychoactive substances phenomenon continues to represent a considerable public health challenge. Although new drugs were reported to the EU Early Warning System at a rate of one per week in 2016, the overall number of new detections was lower than in previous years.

This may be a positive sign, especially if this decline is sustained. However, other data are less encouraging, with no strong indication that the overall availability of new psychoactive substances has reduced. Moreover, even if the pace at which new substances are being introduced may be slowing, the overall number of substances available on the market continues to grow. There are also signs that some classes of new psychoactive substances, notably synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids, are now establishing a foothold in the drug market.

There are a number of reasons that may explain why the pace of new substances appearing on the market may be slowing. Some European countries have introduced blanket bans, generic and analogue based legislation and other measures to target the producers and retailers of new psychoactive substances. This has created a more restrictive legal environment, in which there may be less incentive for producers to engage in a ‘cat and mouse game’ with regulators, in which innovation is used to keep ahead of legal controls.

In addition, much of the supply of new psychoactive substances to Europe originates in China, and new controls there may also have had some impact on availability in the European Union.

In parts of Europe, control measures targeting high street shops appear to have impacted on access to new psychoactive substances. Sales of these substances have become more clandestine, with online access and the illicit drug market now playing a more important role than in the past. In this context, the legal status of new substances, especially when they are sold alongside illicit drugs, may be less important and, correspondingly, be a less powerful driver for product innovation.