EU scientists are developing methods to identify new psychoactive substances (NPS), also known as "designer drugs" or "legal highs", as the dangerous new market grows.
Euronews asked Claude Guillou, head of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) narcotics laboratory in Ispra, Italy, to explain the situation.
He said: "These new psychoactive substances represent a paradigm shift in the general idea we have of drug trafficking. We are talking about small seizures, small pouches of a few grams. We're far from the idea of kilograms of cocaine carried in a suitcase. The challenge for control authorities is to identify a wide variety of molecules in small parcels, that are sent through the mail. Customs generally have to deal with white powders, imported anonymously or associated with false customs declarations. And when they analyse it, it does not match the declaration."
Using an example of powders seized by customs authorities, Mr Guillou said: "What often happens in Europe is that these products are reconditioned, repackaged and often labeled with a chemical identification that matches what they really are. It is then redistributed and sold on e-shops. They have similar chemical characteristics to the drugs that are already known. But there are variations, a bit like viruses, we witness mutations of these drugs, depending on the market. When a drug is declared illegal, often in the following months, a variation is made and this is the tough part for the control authorities, to keep the pace despite these mutations and to always be able to identify the new substances that appear."
He added: "The market is expanding because it can be attractive and seem harmless. But you should know that these products have probably never been tested, not even on an animal. And the first animal that will test it, is perhaps a human being.