EU takes action on “legal highs”

Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are on the rise in Europe. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are on the rise in Europe. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In response to increasing reports of new psychoactive drugs entering the market, the European Union this week moved to revamp its system to respond more quickly.

On Tuesday, the European Commission (EC) proposed new procedures for banning substances, which would cut the time to implement a ban from at least two years to within 10 months. In certain instances, the time period would be shorter and allow officials to remove substances from the market for at least a year, giving authorities time to conduct a risk assessment. Currently, the EC must wait for a full risk assessment to be completed before moving for restrictions, according to EU Reporter.

Likewise, the proposed changes will give regulators a spectrum of options rather than simply taking no action or banning a substance, as is the case now. Under the proposed changes, substances that have “legitimate commercial and industrial uses” will be subject to lighter regulations than dangerous, illicit substances.

These drugs often are called “legal highs” and are new psychoactive substances that fall outside the definition of illicit drugs, making them much more difficult to regulate. Although some may have legitimate uses, they often are used as alternatives to regulated drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy, according to EU Business.

These drugs commonly are marketed as legal and are mislabeled and sold as plant food or “not for human consumption”. Many of these substances have been found to cause potentially life-threatening symptoms, such as psychosis, seizures and tachycardia.

Legal highs, also called designer drugs, have become an increasing problem in recent years as their popularity has continued to grow. The number of new substances identified annually has tripled from 2009 to 2012, from 24 to 73 a year, according to EU figures.

Earlier this year, New Zealand also passed a law in hopes of better regulating designer drugs. It restricts the sale of drugs that don’t meet safety requirements while also banning the sale of unregulated psychoactive substances until they’ve been evaluated for safety.

For a breakdown of how the new system will work versus the old system, see this EU Business article.

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