1 November 2012 - "Designer drugs", "legal highs" or "bath salts" - whatever they are labelled as, psychoactive substances have become a major concern in all regions of the world, particularly given their considerable public health consequences and their potentially even fatal effects.
The term "new psychoactive substances" covers a wide range of substances that often have pharmacological properties and effects similar to those of internationally controlled drugs. This diverse group includes synthetic cathinones, which are similar in structure to amphetamines and synthetic cannabinoids in mimicking the effects of THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis. Piperazines, often sold as ecstasy, are another group of new psychoactive substances that were first encountered in established markets for amphetamine-type stimulants.
While new drugs have always appeared on illicit drug markets, the pace at which such substances have emerged in recent years has accelerated considerably. Last year in Europe alone, 49 new psychoactive substances were reported to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
No such figures are available at the global level, however, owing to the absence of an early warning system for these substances.
To fill this gap, UNODC operates a network of drug-testing laboratories through the international collaborative exercises programme, which for the first time allows laboratories from around the globe to monitor their performance in drug testing. Participating drug-testing laboratories also report at six-month intervals on the new substances that they have analysed.