The rapid spread of new psychoactive substances in the EU market is one of the main challenges to be addressed by drugs policy. New psychoactive substances, which imitate the effects of illicit drugs without being controlled under the UN Conventions on Drugs (hence the name ‘legal highs’), can cause serious harm to the people who use them.

More than 350 new psychoactive substances have been detected in the EU. The problem has worsened greatly in recent years: the number of substances notified through the EU Early Warning System, managed by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, more than tripled between 2009 and 2013, from 24 to 81 a year. The speed with which new substances are entering the market to replace those that are banned challenges the capacity of policymakers to respond.

Another major challenge is the lack of knowledge on these substances, most of which have recently appeared on the market and have never been tested on humans. In September 2013, the European Commission presented legislative proposals to strengthen the EU response to new psychoactive substances. Those proposals underline the need to support the development, sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge in this field.

The European Commission has provided support to projects on new psychoactive substances through five EU financial programmes, namely the Drug Prevention and Information Programme 2007-2013, Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme 2007-2013, Health Programme 2008-2013, and the Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes for research. The results of these projects — some of which are yet to be completed — provide useful insights into the detection and identification of these substances, their effects and risks, patterns and prevalence of use, or innovative prevention methods, for instance.

This document presents an overview of the projects relating to new psychoactive substances that have received funding from EU financial programmes since 2007. The purpose is to map out the available research, disseminate the results and encourage the development of evidence-based policies on new psychoactive substances.

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