News / Health

UN: 'Legal Highs' Swamp Global Drug Market

People looking to purchase designer drugs line up in front of the Last Place On Earth store in Duluth, Minnesota, in this September 21, 2011, file photo.
People looking to purchase designer drugs line up in front of the Last Place On Earth store in Duluth, Minnesota, in this September 21, 2011, file photo.
Selah Hennessy
Designer drugs that are sold openly and legally are on the rise and the international drug control system is foundering under the speed and creativity of their proliferation, the United Nations said in a global report Wednesday.  

A swathe of new drugs is hitting the international market. New psychoactive substances are marketed as “legal highs” and “designer drugs” and they are proliferating at an “unprecedented” rate, according to the U.N.’s 2013 World Drug Report.

Thomas Pietschmann, a co-author of the report, says a major effort needs to be made to prevent the manufacture, trafficking, and use of the drugs. But he says managing the drug’s proliferation is proving difficult because their make-up is constantly shifting.

“Substances emerge on the market only for a short period of time, emerge, disappear, and then another substance emerges, which creates the problem," he said.

According to the report, the number of new phychoactive substances (NPS) reported by member states to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) rose from 166 in 2009 to 251 by last year. That’s a 50 percent rise.

The U.N. report says it’s an “alarming” problem.

But Pietschmann says there is also some good news from the report.

“When we come to the traditional drugs, like cannabis and cocaine, we see some stabilization," said Pietschmann.

According to the report, heroin use seems to be declining in Europe while cocaine use is falling in the United States, the world’s largest cocaine market.

John Collins is Project Coordinator for the IDEAS International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics. He says drugs statistics as listed in Wednesday’s U.N. report should be treated with caution.

“There is a broader cultural shift happening," said Collins. "Maybe people are shifting toward new psychoactive substances. Maybe they will go back to more traditional drugs, maybe they will not. We will not actually know; that is a process that is still playing out so it's hard to predict to be honest.”

He says the current global approach to cannabis, cocaine and opium is a very singular, prohibitionist-oriented approach in which its production, manufacture and distribution is criminalized.

He says so far that is not happening with new psychoactive substances and it has yet to be seen how governments and global bodies decide to tackle their proliferation.

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