The European Union (EU) presented measures on Tuesday, making it easier to ban so-called designer drugs – legal substances that create highs by mimicking the effect of banned chemicals such as cocaine or ecstasy.
Such legal drugs are on the rise – with one new substance reported every week this year, according to the European Commission – and are a particular risk to young people in the bloc, with one in 20 admitting to having tried them at least once.
They can present a grave threat to health, sometimes resulting in death, the EU's executive said. But at present it takes at least two years for the EU to ban new substances – many of which also have other uses, for example in medical, chemical or high-tech industries.
"Legal highs are a growing problem in Europe and it is young people who are most at risk," said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, adding that the lack of internal borders in much of the EU called for common rules to tackle the issue.
Speeding up the process
The commission proposes speeding up the process to ban new substances, so that restrictions can be in place within 10 months. In addition, particularly harmful substances could immediately be withdrawn for a year, while they are being fully assessed.
New drugs would then fall into three categories, with some remaining available; medium-risk drugs banned for consumers, but not from other legitimate uses; and the most dangerous substances also prohibited or strictly regulated in industrial settings, with criminal sanctions attached.
EU lawmakers welcomed the proposals in initial reactions. The measures must be approved by the European Parliament and member states.
"It is intolerable that about 300 drug substances are being sold legally by online stores and we can do nothing about it," said EU lawmaker Hubert Pirker of the European People's Party, the largest group in parliament.
EU law can be sidestepped
"Member states can't do anything because a national ban can be circumvented by buying from an online store in another country," he said, adding, "The EU can't do anything because a lengthy change to EU law can be side-stepped by slightly changing the composition of the drug."
Timothy Kirkhope, from the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists group, welcomed the move to act faster against synthetic drugs manufacturers in countries such as China.
"Initially mephedrone drugs like 'meow meow' were banned, but new substances have been synthesised to take their place. We need to be able to act immediately to take these products off the market across Europe," Kirkhope said.
The proposal was also welcomed by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which looks out for new substances.
"The unprecedented rise in the number, type and availability of new drugs in recent years clearly requires us to strengthen further our early-warning and response capacity," said EMCDDA director Wolfgang Goetz.
Designer drugs can be fatal, with one substance, 5-IT, reportedly killing 24 people in four EU countries within the space of five months last year, according to the commission. A substance imitating amphetamine, 4-MA, was associated with 21 deaths in 2010-12.
Under the proposals, trafficking in severe-risk designer drugs would carry a prison sentence of at least one to three years.