New psychoactive substances are a growing problem. The number of new psychoactive substances detected in the EU has tripled between 2009 and 2012. So far in 2013, more than one new substance has been reported every week. It is a problem that requires a European response. The substances are increasingly available over the internet and rapidly spread between EU countries: 80% of new psychoactive substances are detected in more than one EU country.
The young generation is most at risk: a 2011 Eurobarometer on "Youth attitudes on drugs" shows that on average 5% of young people in the EU have used such substances at least once in their life, with a peak of 16% in Ireland, and close to 10% in Poland, Latvia and the UK. These substances pose major risks to public health and to society as a whole (see Annex 2).
Consuming new psychoactive substances can be fatal. For instance, the substance 5-IT reportedly killed 24 people in four EU countries, in just five months, between April and August 2012. 4-MA, a substance which imitates amphetamine, was associated with 21 deaths in four EU countries in 2010-2012 alone.
Europe's response needs to be strong and decisive. The current system, established In 2005, of detecting and banning these new drugs is no longer fit for purpose. The Commission's proposal will enhance and speed up the Union's ability to fight new psychoactive substances by providing for:
A quicker procedure: At present it takes a minimum of two years to ban a substance in the EU. In the future, the Union will be able to act within just 10 months (see Annex 1). In particularly serious cases, the procedure will be shorter still as it will also be possible to withdraw substances immediately from the market for one year. This measure will make sure the substance is no longer available to consumers while a full risk assessment is being carried out. Under the current system, no temporary measures are possible and the Commission needs to wait for a full risk assessment report to be completed before making a proposal to restrict a substance.
A more proportionate system: The new system will allow for a graduated approach where substances posing a moderate risk will be subject to consumer market restrictions and substances posing a high risk to full market restrictions. Only the most harmful substances, posing severe risks to consumers' health, will be submitted to criminal law provisions, as in the case of illicit drugs. Under the current system, the Union's options are binary - either taking no action at EU level or imposing full market restrictions and criminal sanctions. This lack of options means that, at present, the Union does not take action in relation to some harmful substances. With the new system, the Union will be able to tackle more cases and deal with them more proportionately, by tailoring its response to the risks involved and taking into account the legitimate commercial and industrial uses.
The Commission 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.