It is a headache for politicians right across Europe: how to keep up with the rise in the use of legal highs or psychoactive substances. And how do authorities make sure that these imitations of illicit drugs do not pose a serious risk to people’s health?
Some countries are tough on the issue, others are more relaxed. Meanwhile, Brussels has announced proposals for regulations on new drugs appearing across Europe.
Sales are often over the internet, but it is even possible to buy in specialised shops. That is the case in Latvia, just one example of a nation attempting to strike the right balance.
Latvia has a list of banned substances that are known to be harmful, but new drugs emerge every week.
The police can do nothing about these substances not yet outlawed. But they do carry out undercover checks on the more than 100 or so legal high shops.
Right On joined some officers on a surprise visit they made to one outlet, an operation aimed at making sure nothing banned is on sale.
During the control, officers find that everything being sold is legal. But the police admit they apply other pressure. They take along tax inspectors, the fire department and other officials, to see if they can find other reasons to curtail the business.
During the control filmed by Euronews at least seven administrative violations are alleged.
One young customer outside defended the shop.
“I use spice twice a month,” said the 17-year-old.
Customer: “I don’t know. When I feel depressed, I want to smoke and relax.”
Euronews: “Does it work?”
Customer: “Yes, quite well.”
Euronews: “What do you feel?”
Customer: “Well, how can I say? It’s nothing special. It’s spice. It’s not marijuana, nothing special. Spice is like tea. You drink tea and you feel good.”
Euronews: “What do you think about the police control at this legal high shop?”
Customer: “I think it’s stupid. Because it’s legal. It’s not against the law.
Andrejs Grisins, the head of Latvia’s criminal police told Right On: “The fight against legal narcotics, or as it’s popular to say ‘the new narcotics’, is a top priority for the police because we care about the health of our youth. And for the people who are selling these substances, the target buyers are youngsters. And for us it’s crucial that we fight against them.”
The big debate is over the possible risk of these legal highs, with deaths increasingly reported in many countries. Working out exactly what is in the products is difficult.
One former drug addict who has spent time in prison agreed that some legal highs being used by children are among some of the most harmful drugs.
“If you use it, it’s like hitting your head, blowing your mind,” the ex-addict told Euronews. “Your head just explodes. I tried it once or twice and then I understood that it’s not for me, that I would not survive long with this drug.”
Last year 73 new drugs were identified in Europe, up on 49 in 2011.
That is more than a challenge for those having to treat the growing number of legal high users who need medical help. And the number of cases where laboratories are called on to determine exactly what people have consumed is also on the rise.
Dr. Astrida Stirna, the addiction medicine specialist for the Latvian Ministry of Health, said: “Youngsters who smoke these herbal mixtures get into an uncontrollable state after smoking at home or on the street. And then, in this psychotropic state, they are brought to us where it is hard for us to identify exactly what they have used. This is because there are new substances added all the time and we cannot identify them all.”
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “But as well as using laws, and the likes of police controls, experts say another key element is prevention work, and raising awareness about the possible dangers.”
Here in Latvia, health workers try to get the message across to young people by going into schools, for example. But they say it is equally important for the experts to work with the parents.
Anna Auzina, who is in charge of health promotion & prevention at the Riga City Council, told Right On: “Of course, education is very good. But mostly it all depends on the family, what happens in the family. And if there is no support then a specialist can not go in and say that using drugs is bad, and hope to have any impact.”
Drug control is the more common approach, however, and the question of when a ban should be applied is a pressing concern.
Another priority is how to quickly identify what is harmful, and make sure results can be easily shared between countries.