They are known by different names in different countries: psychoactive substances, legal highs, herbal highs, stimulants or ethno-botanicals. They are part of a new drugs phenomenon that is on the rise in Europe – legal substances that imitate the effects of illicit drugs. But they are also the focus of growing debate.
These new drugs are now appearing on the market at the rate of more than one a week. Some countries are clamping down over health concerns; others have a softer approach.
Portugal is just one country where it is straightforward and legal to buy such products, which are mostly synthetic.
In Lisbon we spoke to a man who has been a user of both outlawed and legal highs. He explained what the attraction was to these new substances.
“They’re easier to get hold of,” said the man, who wanted to remain anonymous. “We can easily go to a store and buy them. They’re new, and so it’s an opportunity to try something new. The police can’t really say anything, they can’t arrest us, they can’t do anything. So we feel safer somehow using these drugs, which are also more accessible.”
He added: “I don’t know to what degree they can be dangerous, if they’re as dangerous as heroine, or if it’s more like cannabis, which doesn’t have a wider impact on you.”
Users also buy online, with hundreds of websites flourishing despite the efforts of some governments to close them down.
In some countries the new legal drugs are also sold in what are known as smart shops.
We asked the owner of one of these shops in Lisbon what he thinks when he hears that similar shops elsewhere are being closed down?
Neto Lelis said: “I think this generally happens in countries where the state is very protective, interfering too much in people’s lives. There has to be free will. And things work nowadays in countries where legislation is not strong. Basically this store exists because there’s a gap in the legislation.”
Portugal decriminalised personal possession of small amounts of drugs 10 years ago, opting instead to send offenders to a special counselling commission.
Carla Joaquim, a social worker at the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction said: “We always evaluate the consequences of consuming illegal or legal substances in someone’s life. We do a psycho-social evaluation. We try to detect any psychological or psychiatric problems. We try to understand what’s behind the consumption in the person’s life.”
Last year 49 new substances were detected through an EU early-warning system and this year’s list has already reached 36. Authorities say health issues are their main concern.
Roumen Sedefov at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction told euronews: “These are substances that have never been tested in humans. These are substances that have no history in human use. These are substances that we know very little about: toxicology, safety profile, pharmacology. So this is clearly something that we have to be aware (of) and something that we need to very rapidly address whenever new substances come (on) the market.”
Some of the so-called legal highs have been linked to illnesses and even deaths in some countries, pushing the issue further up the political agenda. London has even opened what is called a club drug clinic.
A review is currently underway in Brussels to see whether current measures in place are working, especially when it comes to new drugs that have an impact right across the bloc. Proposals are due by the end of the year.
But some individual countries have already taken tough action. Romania, for example, last year banned more than 40 new substances, a stance backed in the opinion polls.
Experts here also highlight a particular concern. Addicts are injecting the cheaper, easier-to-find new drugs, just like they did with the likes of heroin.
A needle exchange team in Bucharest told euronews that the imitation substances are being injected far more often, with contaminated blood therefore remaining contagious in shared needles. A rise in HIV cases and infectious diseases is reported.
The workers also say some of the mixtures of new drugs can be far more dangerous than the well-known illicit drugs.
Dan Popescu, the coordinator of the needle exchange outreach team, said: “Heroin users could have lived 10, 15, 20 years on heroin. A legal high user can die in somewhere between six months and 12 months from the shooting, if they’re not lucky or very careful, and they are usually not.”
Dr. Adrian-Octavian Abagiu, the medical director of a methadone treatment clinic (ARENA), told euronews: “I’m afraid to say, but heroin was much better, injecting heroin was much safer then injecting these new legal drugs. Their effects are devastating.”
A former drug user in Bucharest, who wanted to remain anonymous, told us: “Since those legal drugs appeared on the market, a lot of people got sick – contracting HIV, hepatitis – because they do not think about the consequences.”
Another ex-user said: “They contain unknown substances that are very toxic, which damage the body a lot. If you take them for six or seven months you go from 70 kilos down to 30 or 40 kilos.”
So what is the best way to deal with these legal substances?
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “In a survey of young Europeans last year just two per cent thought that no action should be taken. 15 per cent thought that consumption and sales should be regulated, much like alcohol and tobacco. Roughly a third supported a total ban on all psychoactive substances that imitate the effects of illicit drugs. But the majority say that they should only be banned if there’s a risk to someone’s health.”
Many state agencies and experts want total bans and more tough action, but some help organisations say it may be time to consider alternatives.
Valentin Simionov at the Romanian Harm Reduction Network said: “The current system is focused on prohibition, on very firm control of substances in general. But legal highs might be a consequence of this current system. Because in a way, criminalising let’s say the classical drugs, that was an incentive for the illicit research to synthesise more so-called designer drugs.
“So maybe an option would be to look into alternatives to the current drug control systems, eventually to regulate these substances, or eventually to regulate the illicit drugs.”
Testing and identifying exactly what is psychoactive is costly and complex. Most plants, for example, contain hundreds of different substances that can be mixed up. Specialists warn that it may never be possible to control everything.
Robert Ancuceanu at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest told euronews: “In the end you can’t prohibit the selling of salad, or bananas or whatever – there are people who use banana peels, skins, to try to get high. We can’t prohibit everything, because they will always try to find different ways to get a high.”
For now though, authorities say they remain committed to keeping track of any new drugs that emerge.