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Amid rising demand for designer drugs, international experts weigh tougher controls

Credit: UNODC/Ioulia Kondratovitch
UNODC/Ioulia Kondratovitch
Credit: UNODC/Ioulia Kondratovitch

Amid rising demand for designer drugs, international experts weigh tougher controls

With demand soaring for untested concoctions of psychoactive substances, the head of the United Nations drug and crime agency urged concerted action from the international community to prevent the manufacture, trafficking and abuse of drugs whose makeup is constantly changing.

Sold openly, including online, new psychoactive substances (NPS) are marketed as “legal highs” with nicknames such as “spice”, “plant food”, “bath salts” and “meow meow”, and sold openly via the internet.

Uncontrolled and therefore not tested for safety, the potential harm of these drugs is greater than that of traditional drugs.

“The adverse effects of NPS are poorly understood and present a global health risk,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Yury Fedotov said following a meeting of international experts last week in Vienna, Austria.

The meeting brought together some of the world’s leading organizations working to tackle the threat of “legal highs” including the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), as well as international and regional organizations and experts from 22 countries.

During the meeting, the participants agreed that while all the tools exist to track NPS, these substances remain challenging.

The drugs, a type of mephedrone with effects similar to the effects of cocaine and amphetamines, are based on existing illegal recreational drugs with chemical structures that are modified to varying degrees to evade the drug laws.

The number of NPS reported by Member States to UNODC rose in the past year by 41 per cent to 354 from 251, while countries reporting detection climbed to 90 from 70, the UN agency reported.

During the meeting, the WHO committed to prioritizing substances to be evaluated for potential harm under drug conventions, to align its review process with meetings for the Commission on Narcotic Drugs for faster review, according to a news release.

In response to the proliferation of NPS, UNODC has launched an early warning system in June which the UN said will allow the global community to monitor their emergence and take appropriate actions.

UNODC is also supporting its “Make health your 'new high' in life, not drugs,” awareness campaign to inform the public, particularly young people, about the harmful effects of NPS.