Europe is fighting a battle against dangerous designer drugs being created so fast and frequently that authorities are struggling to control them, EU agencies said in a report Tuesday.
Nearly 300 such drugs hit European markets between 2013 and 2015 alone, according to the report by the two agencies, which warned of a particular problem with synthetic cannabinoid products crafted to mimic the chemical make-up of cannabis.
“The evolution of the European market for NPS (“new psychoactive substances”) has accelerated to a speed that the public authorities’ established response — drug control laws — has struggled to match,” said the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and judicial cooperation agency Eurojust.
The rate at which the drugs are appearing means that “as soon as one new psychoactive substance is identified by the authorities and controlled, a replacement is often already on the shelves,” they said.
Limited evidence of public health risks
One constraint on prohibiting the substances is that they crop up so quickly there is “very limited evidence of public health risks”.
Also, sellers start carrying substances which though unsafe may not be on a list of banned substances, “reasoning that whatever is not expressly prohibited must be allowed for open sale”.
Financial and technical resources of government agencies are under strain, too, the report warned, since police have to test for all new drugs added to the list of banned substances.
The UN’s drugs control body last year warned that new synthetic drugs posed a serious health problem and was particularly prevalent in the United States where the phenomenon started about a decade ago.
Cities like New York for instance have launched active campaigns against synthetic cannabis, widely known as K2 — which has killed several people and sent thousands of others to emergency rooms.
Legal substitutes for marijuana
The manmade cannabinoids, marketed as legal substitutes for marijuana, are made either in liquid form and then sprayed on shredded dried plant material to be smoked, or as liquids to be “vaped” in e-cigarettes and other devices.
Often marketed as a “safe” alternative, they in fact “may affect the brain more powerfully than marijuana (and) their actual affects can be… in some cases, severe or even life threatening,” according to the US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse.
With the increasingly popular synthetic cannabinoids now in Europe, authorities have hit a regulation roadblock.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in a recent German case they could not be considered medicinal products, meaning that countries which used “medicine law” to block the drugs have been stymied.
“The decision of the CJEU might give way to legal gaps with the potential of undermining NPS prosecutions in members states that resort to medicine law”, the report said.
But several countries including Finland, France, Germany and The Netherlands are currently working to update legislation specifically to be able to deal with synthetic cannabinoids.
For instance, a German law is expected to enter into force by the end of this year which could see offenders spend up to 10 years in jail if caught supplying NPS, the report said.