EU Drug Market: New psychoactive substances — In-depth analysis

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EU Drug Market: New psychoactive substances describes the European NPS market from production and trafficking to distribution and use. It details the processes, materials and players involved at various stages and levels of the market. The module takes a threat assessment approach, identifying key issues and defining recommendations for action at EU and Member State level.

This resource is a module of EU Drug Markets: In-depth analysis, the fourth comprehensive overview of illicit drug markets in the European Union by the EMCDDA and Europol.

Last update: 27 June 2024

Table of contents

Introduction

New psychoactive substances in form of tablets, powder and herbal mixtures

New psychoactive substances (NPS) are a broad range of drugs that are not controlled by the United Nations Drug Control Conventions. They include stimulants, cannabinoids, opioids, benzodiazepines, hallucinogens and dissociatives. Many of these substances are intended to mimic the effects of internationally controlled drugs and are sold as ‘legal’ replacements for them. They may pose similar health and social risks to those drugs under international control. Since 2008, the NPS market has diversified, grown significantly and spread globally. New psychoactive substances are now recognised as a global policy issue and a public health threat. The NPS market is highly dynamic and resilient, and is characterised by a high turnover of cheap, available and replaceable substances. New psychoactive substances are also increasingly integrated with the controlled drug market. As new psychoactive substances are not monitored systematically in many parts of the world there is typically limited information about production, trafficking and supply, retail markets, use and harms. A three-step legal framework of early warning, risk assessment and control measures allows the EU to rapidly detect, assess and respond to threats caused by NPS.

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Key findings and threat assessment

New psychoactive substances affect regions, countries and localities in different ways. The specific types of new psychoactive substances that emerge and the threats they pose are shaped by global supply chains and local drug situations, both of which change over time. Between 2020 and 2022, record quantities of new psychoactive substances were seized in Europe. At the same time, there are signs that the number of previously unreported new psychoactive substances entering the market may be slowing. Highly potent substances, such as synthetic opioids, continue to emerge. These are easy to conceal and traffic, as a few grams can make thousands of doses. Following the steep decline in fentanyl derivatives appearing in Europe since 2018, the equally potent nitazene opioids have replaced them. Since 2022, a new market in semi-synthetic cannabinoids has emerged. They appear to be made from naturally occurring cannabinoids, such as CBD, and are sold openly in a broad range of consumer product forms including vapes and edibles that may be particularly attractive to young people. An increasing number of ‘old’ new psychoactive substances have recently re-emerged in Europe. Some of these, such as the cathinones, have been seized in industrial quantities.

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Global context

Prior to 2008, the NPS market was characterised by a small number of new psychoactive substances and consumers. Since then, the number, type and availability of new psychoactive substances have expanded rapidly across the globe. Globalisation of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry and the internet have fuelled this market. This has allowed new psychoactive substances, their precursors and key equipment to be produced, sold and supplied on an industrial scale. During this period, highly potent substances from a wider set of chemical classes have also been introduced onto the market. The specific types of new psychoactive substances that emerge and the threats they pose are shaped by global supply chains and local drug situations. In North America, for example, new opioids are now an established element of the ongoing opioid epidemic. While the use of new psychoactive substances by people with high-risk patterns of drug use appears to have increased in some places, there is a limited understanding of the epidemiology of these drugs, as commonly used methods for studying drug use and estimating prevalence may not be suitable. These issues have left gaps in our understanding of the size and impact of the market.

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Overview of production

‘Dream Factory’ operation. Source: DIICOT – Iasi Territorial Service.

Most new psychoactive substances on the European drug market are synthetic substances that are produced in China and India, where production of these substances and their precursors can take place on an industrial scale. This has been driven by increasing expertise and capacity in the science and technology sector, limited regulatory oversight, low labour costs, the internet, and cheap and efficient shipping. The diversification of NPS production in India may partially reflect controls implemented in China, as well as greater oversight and scrutiny of companies in China and shipments from China to Europe. Once in Europe, these new psychoactive substances are processed and packaged into a range of products. To a lesser degree, some new psychoactive substances, particularly synthetic cathinones, are produced from precursors in Europe. Overall, an increasing number of laboratories involved in the synthesis of new psychoactive substances were dismantled in Europe between 2017 and 2021. As is the case with other synthetic drugs produced in Europe, the precursors may be sourced from China and India. Worryingly, there are also recent signals in 2023 of possible fentanyl production in Latvia.

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Distribution and supply in Europe

vending machine with HHC packs

New psychoactive substances are sold as substances in their own right but they are also used to make a range of consumer products sold as ‘legal highs’. New psychoactive substances are sold openly in shops, vending machines and on the surface web and social media, as well as on the darknet. They are also sold on street-level drug markets, sometimes being mis-sold as or used to adulterate controlled drugs. A particularly risky example of this is the entry of highly potent synthetic opioids into the supply chain for heroin and other established opioids.

In 2022, more than 30.7 tonnes of new psychoactive substances were seized in Europe. A small number of large seizures at the external EU border accounted for the bulk of the quantity seized, with cathinones (26.5 tonnes), predominantly from India, representing 87 % of the total quantity seized. The broad range of new psychoactive substances and consumer products, combined with the dynamic nature of the market, gives rise to a complex picture across Europe. The capacity to detect and report new psychoactive substances also differs across Europe, meaning that there is both under-detection and under-reporting in some areas.

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Synthetic cathinones

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Synthetic cannabinoids

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Semi-synthetic cannabinoids

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New opioids

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Benzodiazepines

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Ketamine

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Actions to address current threats and increase preparedness

A hand holding a light bulb in form of a human head

The analysis of the NPS market supports a number of conclusions with regard to the protection of public health and security. In particular, it is necessary to continue to support and strengthen the capacity of national and EU early warning systems to increase situational awareness, as well as strengthen preparedness planning and the development of response measures. There is also a need to increase the ability of forensic science and toxicology laboratories to identify new psychoactive substances as well as their precursors and metabolites. Enhanced international cooperation between the Member States, EU bodies and agencies, third countries and key international partners is needed.

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Source data

All of the source data used in graphics and data tables may be found on each page as well as in our Data catalogue.

Methodology and references

© EMCDDA, Europol, 2024
For further information on copyright and reuse, please see our legal notice.

Methodology: Read more about the methodology used to collect data in this analysis.

References: Consult the list of references used in this module.

Abbreviations: Consult the list of acronyms and other abbreviations used in EU Drug Markets: In-depth analysis.

Photo credits: Overview of production: DIICOT – Iasi Territorial Service; Distribution and supply: State Criminal Police Office Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany; remaining photos: istockphoto.com.

Recommended citation: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol (2024), EU Drug Market: New psychoactive substances — In-depth analysishttps://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/eu-drug-markets/new-psychoact…

Identifiers

HTML: TD-02-24-350-EN-Q
ISBN: 978-92-9497-966-7
DOI: 10.2810/338463


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