Health and policing agencies are grappling with “an unprecedented increase” in the number of new synthetic drugs across Europe.
The dizzying array of chemicals pose serious and largely unknown risks to users, with a growing number of toxic reactions leading to hospitalisations and deaths.
Garda sources record a similar trend here, with seizures of many of these substances and incidents of serious harm, including fatalities.
Ireland is different from most of Europe in that it effectively banned the sale of psychoactive drugs in 2010. This resulted in the closure of headshops, significantly reducing consumption, and shifted the trade online and onto the street.
A new report published by the EU drugs agency shows that 101 new psychoactive substances (NPS) were detected by their early warning system last year. This compares to 81 new chemicals in 2013; 73 in 2012; 49 in 2011; and 41 in 2009.
In total, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said it was now monitoring a total of 450 NPS.
Of the 101 new chemicals seized last year, 31 were cathinones, which mimic the effects of amphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy); while 30 were cannabinoids, synthetic chemicals which mimic cannabis.
It said seizure data from law enforcement confirm the growth of this market. “Between 2008 and 2013 there was a seven-fold increase in the number of seizures reported across Europe.”
It said almost 47,000 seizures of such substances were recorded across the EU in 2013, weighing over 3.1 tonnes. This included 21,495 hauls of synthetic cannabinoids, amounting to 1.6 tonnes; and 10,657 seizures of synthetic cathinones, amounting to over 1.1 tonnes.
It said the growth in the market was also responsible for an increase in serious harms, mostly non-fatal intoxications and deaths.
The report said particular challenges facing authorities were the “speed at which new psychoactive substances appear; their open sale; and the lack of information on their effects and harms”.
One Garda source said yesterday: “Although usage levels are nowhere near where they were when headshops were in full swing, there are new drugs coming on the market all the time and users don’t know what they are taking. There have been a number of deaths and toxic reactions.”
Among these were deaths involving PMMA (an amphetamine derivative) and toxic reactions, and at least one death, involving MDPV, a chemical that mimics cocaine and caused public health alarm in Dublin city in particular last year.
This chemical and a related drug PVP were seized by gardaí in Dublin’s north inner city in an surveillance operation last October.
In 2013, 41kg of PVP was seized, worth €1.4m. Also in 2013, gardaí seized 13.6kg of MEC, a synthetic cathinone, and more than 1kg of synthetic cannabinoids.
In 2012, 23.5kg of synthetic cathinones were seized (mainly MEC), along with 31.7kg of cannabinoids.
The Emcdda report cited previous surveys which showed the Ireland had the highest level of usage of NPS. In a survey of 13,000 people aged 15-24 in EU states, the Flash Eurobarometer found 9% in Ireland had taken an NPS in the last year, compared to an EU average of 3%.
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