One in six of Ireland’s teens has admitted to using them — the highest proportion in the EU — while one person a week died in Britain as a result of these drugs last year.
Up until now, it could take years to identify and ban the drugs, with new substitutes appearing regularly. Getting them under control was difficult as most are bought online.
The plan is to cut short all the procedures, take any drugs with a question mark off the market quickly, and then test them.
Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, launching the plan, said: “Legal highs are a growing problem in Europe, with young people most at risk. In a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to tackle the problem.”
These psychoactive substances are used as alternatives to illegal drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy. They are becoming increasingly popular, with the number of new substances detected last year in the EU tripling in just three years.
The new drugs appear quickly in a large number of countries because they are being bought over the internet — for instance, 80% of them are detected in more than one EU country when they make an appearance.
The effects can be fatal, with 24 people in four European countries dying from the drug known as 5-IT within a few weeks last year, while 4-MA, which imitates amphetamine, is said to have killed 21 people.
The drugs are manufactured in labs in several countries, including China, to have the same effect on the central nervous system as cocaine or ecstasy. They can cause hallucinations and alter thinking, behaviour, perception, awareness, and mood.
They are marketed as legal alternatives to illegal substances and therefore ‘safe’, but in fact they can cause grave damage to users, the effects of which are often lasting. These includes psychosis, hypertension, seizures, severe psychiatric problems and the spread of infections.
The risks increase when severe psychoactive substances are taken together or mixed with alcohol. Medical services often have problems identifying the substances and so effective treatment can be delayed.
The drugs are frequently sold using fake labels such as plant food, bath salts, or research chemicals to try to evade seizure.
An estimated 20% of the substances have been found to have active ingredients which are used for other purposes, including stain remover, glue, and paint stripper, or for medical use, such as in anti-depressants.
The new rules would see those products identified as being of immediate risk taken off the market for a year for testing, which would not affect their genuine medical use. Following assessment, the most dangerous would be banned with criminal sanctions, while there would be no action against those deemed of no or low risk.
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