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Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

Commission takes decisive action against dangerous 'legal highs'


The European Commission today proposed to strengthen the European Union’s ability to respond to ‘legal highs’ – new psychoactive substances that imitate the effects of illicit narcotics such as ecstasy or cocaine. Although such new psychoactive substances are marketed as ‘legal’ alternatives to illicit drugs they are dangerous and can be fatal. They are also a growing problem: the number of new psychoactive substances detected in the EU has tripled between 2009 and 2012 leaving young people especially at risk. The Commission is therefore proposing stronger EU rules – a Regulation and a Directive, under which harmful new psychoactive substances will be withdrawn from the market quickly.

Tuesday's proposals have two major innovations:

  • First, they will enable swift EU- action with a reduction of the time taken to ban a substance in the EU, from at least two years to 10 months. In addition, in the case of immediate risk, temporary measures can be introduced in six months to ban the substance from the market;
  • Second, they will introduce a graduated, more proportionate system taking into account that numerous new psychoactive substances have useful legitimate uses, for example in the production of medicines. Under the graduated approach substances carrying a moderate risk will be subjected to consumer market restrictions, while those of as severe risk will be subjected to full market restrictions. They will also be subjected to criminal law provisions, as are illicit drugs.

"With a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to tackle this problem," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner. Substances are increasingly available over the internet and rapidly spread across Europe: 80% of new psychoactive substances are detected in more than one EU country. A 2011 Eurobarometer report showed that younger generations are most at risk.

The Commission's proposals now need to be adopted by the European Parliament and by Member States in the Council of the European Union in order to become law.