Vol. 76, No. 3Featured submission

New psychoactive substances

Emerging designer drugs pose real risks

Synthetic substances such as mephedrone, methylone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) can evoke stimulant effects similar to amphetamine and MDMA. Credit: Canada Border Services Agency


Synthetic drugs are taking an ever-greater share of the illicit drugs market, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The synthetic drug market has been long dominated by amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) such as MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and methamphetamine, which are now more widely used than cocaine, opium or heroin. But a new category of synthetic drugs called new psychoactive substances, or NPS, is now on the rise.

Often referred to as "legal highs" or "designer drugs," new psychoactive substances are synthetic drugs that have been specifically designed to mimic the pharmacological effects of existing controlled substances. They are often falsely advertised as safe alternatives to ecstasy or other ATS, even though their use has been associated with serious adverse health effects.

Although Canada currently doesn't have a formal definition for NPS, it recognizes them as substances — either man-made (synthetic) or plant-based — that mimic the effects of a substance that is already controlled internationally or domestically.

For instance, synthetic cannabinoids mimic the effects of THC, which is the main psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis. Also, synthetic cathinones, which include substances such as mephedrone, methylone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), can evoke stimulant effects similar to amphetamine and MDMA.

Most NPS intercepted at the border are identified by the Canada Border Services Agency's Analytical and Forensic Services Division Laboratory. But sometimes, identifying these unknown substances can be challenging.

Legislative framework

There are two key pieces of drug legislation in Canada: the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). These Acts have different purposes but serve to form a legislative framework that captures most NPS.

Under the FDA, the definition for the term "drug" is very broad: it essentially captures anything that modifies an organic function. It's illegal to sell or import for sale a drug without prior authorization from Health Canada. Unauthorized sale and distribution activities may be subject to compliance and enforcement action in accordance with the FDA.

On the other hand, the CDSA provides for the control of substances that can alter mental processes and that may produce harm to health and to society when diverted or misused. The production, trafficking, importation, exportation and sometimes possession of controlled substances are prohibited under the CDSA. Unlike the FDA, the CDSA lists the substances regulated under it in a series of Schedules. Schedules I through V list controlled substances and Schedule VI lists precursor chemicals.

Nevertheless, if a substance is not explicitly listed in one of the Schedules to the CDSA, it does not mean that it isn't controlled. This is because the text of many Schedule entries makes provision to include additional substances that are, for example, a salt, derivative, isomer, analogue, preparation or similar synthetic preparation of the primary substance.Footnote 1

Current challenges

There are many challenges in addressing the NPS phenomenon.

One of the most important is the fact that there's often a lack of evidence required to develop legislative controls. For instance, there's often little or no information on the short- or long-term effects or toxicity of many NPS. Nor has the pharmacological activity of many new psychoactive substances been defined and, therefore, the potential for harm or dependence associated with their use can't be easily evaluated.

Legislative processes are very involved and lengthy. For example, it can take six to eight months to complete the federal regulatory process once a scheduling assessment and recommendation have been finalized. It's for this reason that the Canadian government continues to explore options for accelerated scheduling.Footnote 2

Snapshot of NPS

There are four main classes of NPS:

  • Synthetic cannabinoids (JWH-018, XLR-11)
  • Synthetic cathinones (mephedrone, methylone, MDPV)
  • Phenethylamines (2C family)
  • Piperazines (BZP)

Other classes include the tryptamines, the aminoindanes, the phenylcyclidines and plant-based substances such as khat and salvia divinorum.

There are currently more unregulated NPS available around the world than there are substances under international control.

Source: Health Canada

Another challenge is the rate at which the NPS market continues to evolve. Fuelled by the Internet, the global NPS industry is characterized by the great speed with which manufacturers can get new substances onto the market and establish new markets.Footnote 3 Canada alone has observed 121 different NPS in the illicit drug market over the past four years.

"There's a dynamic and unprecedented global expansion of the synthetic drugs market both in scope and variety," says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC. "New substances are quickly created and marketed, challenging law enforcement efforts to keep up with the traffickers and curb public health risks."

In fact, of the 348 NPS reported globally in more than 90 countries at the end of 2013, none are currently under international control.Footnote 4

Another particularly worrying development is that the sale of NPS is no longer restricted to niche markets. There's evidence from almost all regions of the world indicating that tablets sold as ecstasy or methamphetamine increasingly comprise chemical cocktails that pose unforeseen public health challenges. Associated with this is the difficulty in raising awareness about the risks associated with the illegal purchase and/or use of NPS.

Jocelyn Kula, from Health Canada's Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, says there's a need for information specifically directed to youth given that they form a significant portion of the market worldwide. This demographic perceives NPS to be safe and/or legal.

Kula says there's also need to develop tools and resources to inform and encourage reporting by first responders, such as poison control centres, law enforcement, emergency room staff, paramedics, and so on, any of whom may be the first to see a new NPS and who should thus be encouraged to share whatever intelligence they have.

Addressing NPS

A number of initiatives at the national and international levels have been taken in order to address the ever-growing problem of NPS.

Even though most NPS are not yet included in the Schedules to the 1971 Single Convention on Psychotropic Substances, many individual countries have responded to NPS by using a variety of legislative approaches: the scheduling of individual substances, the use of accelerated scheduling authorities, the use of temporary bans and the use of analogue legislation.Footnote 5

In addition, in 2013, the UNODC Global Smart Program launched an NPS portal to facilitate the collection of information about the worldwide incidence of NPS.

Lastly, the International Narcotics Control Board has recently launched Project ION (International Operations on NPS), which seeks to promote the sharing of operational intelligence about the domestic and international movement of NPS.

Sixteen governments are currently participating in this international initiative including Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.Footnote 6 Canada is represented by RCMP Federal Policing.

In May 2014, to raise awareness about NPS within the law enforcement community and among federal government departments, the RCMP Federal Co-ordination Center (Domestic) hosted a panel discussion about NPS in Ottawa, Ont., and included panel speakers from the International Narcotics Control Board, the RCMP, Health Canada and Canada Border Services Agency. This panel discussion also provided an opportunity for speakers to share various perspectives with other agencies dealing with NPS in Canada.

"It's obvious that legislation to control NPS is not a one-size-fits-all solution," says Kula. "Rather, a holistic approach that involves a number of elements including prevention and treatment, legislative controls, improving precursor controls and related offences, and cracking down on trafficking rings, has to be applied to tackle this problem."

Looking forward, as NPS continue to emerge, the international law enforcement community and its federal partners will continue their efforts to raise awareness about the public health and safety risks associated with these drugs, and to share information internationally to keep ahead of the market and limit its expansion.

This article was written with the collaboration of Jocelyn Kula from the Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate of Health Canada.

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