New psychoactive substances: many and diverse

By the end of 2016, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 620 new psychoactive substances that have appeared on Europe’s drug market. These substances are not covered by international drug controls and make up a broad range of drugs such as synthetic cannabinoids, stimulants, opioids and benzodiazepines. In most cases they are marketed as ‘legal’ replacements for illicit drugs, while others are aimed at small groups who wish to explore them for possible novel effects.

Number and categories of new psychoactive substances notified to the EU Early Warning System for the first time, 2005–16


In many cases, new substances are produced in bulk quantities by chemical and pharmaceutical companies in China. From there they are shipped to Europe, where they are processed into products, packaged and sold. In addition, some new substances may be sourced as medicines, which are either diverted from the legitimate supply chain or sourced illegally. The substances may also be produced in clandestine laboratories, either in Europe or elsewhere. Various indicators, including detections of illicit laboratories, analysis of dumped synthetic drug waste and precursor seizures, suggest an increase in this form of production in the last few years in Europe.

Some new substances are sold openly on the surface web and in specialised physical shops - often as branded ‘legal high’ products. In addition, they are sold on darknet markets and on the illicit market, sometimes under their own name and sometimes falsely as illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and benzodiazepines.

More than 70 % of new substances that were detected through the European Union Early Warning System have been made in the last 5 years. During 2016, 66 new substances were detected for the first time in Europe. This is fewer than in either of the previous 2 years but is similar to the numbers detected in 2012 and 2013. The causes of this decrease are unclear, but may in part be due to measures taken by national governments in Europe to prohibit new substances, particularly their open sale as ‘legal highs’. In addition, control measures and law enforcement operations in China targeting laboratories producing new substances may be another factor. Growing links with the broader illicit drug market may also be important.

The number of new substances detected each year is just one of a range of metrics that the EMCDDA uses in order to understand the overall market. For example, of the 620 new substances currently being monitored, 423 (almost 70 %) were detected on the drug market during 2015; this compares with 365 in 2014 and 299 in 2013 - illustrating how complex this market has become.

By the end of 2016, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 620 new psychoactive substances