New Psychoactive Substances – What’s all the fuss about?

NPS - What's all the fuss about?

Have you heard about New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) in the news and wondered what they are and how they may affect Maritime Organisations – read on to find out!

What are NPS?

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) are marketed as alternatives to controlled drugs and claim to deliver similar effects to ‘traditional’ drugs.1 They have been around for some time and are often referred to as ‘legal highs’, ‘herbal highs’, ‘bath salts’ or ‘research chemicals’. They differ massively in terms of their effects, how they are used and their history.2

How prevalent are NPS?

According to the UNODC over 100 countries and territories from all over the world have reported one or more NPS, and their Early Warning Advisory received reports of over 600 substances by December 2015.3 Within Europe, there has been a huge increase in the number, type and availability of NPS over the past five years, with 101 new substances being reported for the first time to the EU Early Warning System in 2014. Synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones are the largest groups of NPS monitored by the EMCDDA, reflecting the demand for cannabis and stimulants in Europe.4

It is unclear if the large numbers of NPS that have emerged in recent years are displacing existing drugs under international control, or if there is diversification of the range of synthetic drugs available. A growing number of countries have been reporting a wide range of emerging NPS, in addition to worrying developments like injecting NPS. While generally there are a large number of NPS available across the globe, there are still big differences between countries and regions in terms of patterns of what is being found.1

The majority of countries and territories that reported the emergence of NPS up to December 2014 were from Europe (39), Asia (27), Africa (14), the Americas (13) and Oceania (2). They continue to expand their reach as four new countries or territories, the Cayman Islands (Americas), Montenegro (Europe), Peru (Americas) and Seychelles (Africa), reported NPS for the first time in 2014.1

How are NPS used?

Global data on the use of NPS are limited for various reasons, one of these being the large number available and the other is the variety of names, including street names, which are being used. In a lot of cases users cannot identify the substance they are using, so finding information from other sources is the only option. The information that has been coming from the early warning systems has helped to identify the use of NPS and associated health risks at an early stage.1

Legal Status of NPS

As they are not controlled under the International Drug Control Conventions, NPS legal status can vary from country to country as they try to tackle the problem they pose. Over 50 countries had implemented legal responses to control NPS, up to mid-2015. At an international level the Commission on Narcotic Drugs placed 10 NPS under international control in March 2015. These control measures have to be implemented into the national legal framework of each country.3 Producers stay in the market by rapidly developing and introducing new substances, each time they anticipate legal and regulatory controls for current substances.

What are the risks with NPS?

NPS use is often linked to health problems, including hospitalisation with sever intoxications. Synthetic cannabinoids use has also been linked to a number of unexplained suicides. There have also been a number of unexplained suicides and mephedrone like substances have been associated with fatalities.6 The EMCDDA expect that NPS will continue to throw up challenges for public health and drug policy over the next few years as they continue to appear quickly, are very readily available and have limited information on their effects and harms.4

What can I do about this as a Maritime Organisation?

Treating them like traditional drugs of abuse, in terms of continuing to discourage Crew to use them in the interim is advisable. There are some tests available for NPS; however they are limited at the moment. Alere Toxicology has been carrying out extensive research into this area of testing and will be announcing some new testing methods soon, watch this space for an update!

Further reading and content sources

  1. UNODC World Drug Report 2015
  2. UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS
  3. UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS – What are NPS?
  4. EMCDDA NPS in Europe – An Update from the EU Early Warning System, March 2015
  5. EMCDDA EU Drug Markets Report – In-Depth Analysis, 2016
  6. UNODC NPS Leaflet
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