European Commission takes decisive action on legal highs
On 17th September 2013, the European Commission proposed to strengthen the European Union’s ability to respond to ‘legal highs’ – new psychoactive substances used as alternatives to illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy. Under the rules proposed by the Commission, harmful psychoactive substances will be withdrawn quickly from the market, without jeopardising their various legitimate industrial and commercial uses. The proposals follow warnings from the EU's Drugs Agency (the EMCDDA) and Europol about the scale of the problem and a 2011 report which found that the EU’s current mechanism for tackling new psychoactive substances needed bolstering (IP/11/1236).
The proposal was presented by Vice-President Reding, in association with Vice-President Tajani and Commissioner Borg.
"'Legal highs are a growing problem in Europe and it is young people who are most at risk. With a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to tackle this problem," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner. "Today we are proposing strong EU legislation on new psychoactive substances so that the EU can provide a faster and more effective response, including the ability to immediately remove harmful substances from the market on a temporary basis."
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.
The EU Drugs Strategy for 2013-2020 set out priorities for EU drugs policy. It identifies the emergence and rapid spread of new psychoactive substances as a new challenge which needs to be vigorously addressed, including through the strengthening of existing EU legislation.
In recent years, on average one new psychoactive substance was detected every week in the EU, and the numbers are expected to increase in the coming years. Since 1997, Member States have detected more than 300 substances and their number tripled between 2009 and 2012 (from 24 in 2009 to 73 in 2012).
Under the existing EU instrument, Council Decision 2005/387/JHA, the Commission can propose to Member States that new drugs be subjected to criminal measures. Thanks to this mechanism, 9 substances have been submitted to restriction measures and criminal sanctions. Most recently, in 2010, the Commission proposed and achieved an EU-wide ban on the ecstasy-like drug mephedrone (MEMO/10/646) and in early 2013 on the amphetamine-like drug 4-MA (IP/13/75). In June 2013 the Commission also proposed to ban the synthetic '5-IT' drug (IP/13/604).
A 2011 report found that the current system has struggled to keep up with the large numbers of new substances emerging on the market. It takes two years to submit a single substance to restrictive measures. Criminals can then circumvent the control measures through limited changes to the chemical structure of the substance which do not mitigate its serious harmful effects. In addition, the binary nature of the current system, criminal measures or no action, hinders the Union's ability to act. It lacks a range of effective options for control measures which allows swift, targeted action.
The proposals respond to persistent warnings from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol. They also respond to calls from the European Parliament and Member States (see 2011 Council conclusions) to update Council Decision 2005/387.
- Questions and answers: MEMO/13/790
- European Commission – Drug control policy:
- 2011 Eurobarometer on "Youth attitudes on drugs”
- European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction 'European Drug Report' 2013:
- Homepage of Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission and EU Justice Commissioner:
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- European Commission