Lisa Campbell

At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last month, one topic that had delegates buzzing was New Psychoactive Substances.  While technically “New” Psychoactive Substances are as old as global drug control laws, the rush to increasingly schedule substances combined with the proliferation of internet drug culture, has led to an explosion of new unscheduled drugs over the past few years.  Some of these drugs have been used as medicine in indigenous cultures, or trialed by pharmaceutical companies for a variety of essential medicines ranging from anaesthetics to anti-depressants.  According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report (2013) New Psychoactive Substances were created to, “exploit loopholes in drug control legislation has been a problem since the international drug control system was first established. The proliferation of such substances in recent decades was influenced by the work done by Ann and Alexander Shulgin on phenethylamines and tryptamines in the 1960s and the 1970s. The Shulgins reported over 230 psychoactive compounds that they had synthesized and evaluated for their psychedelic and entactogenic potential. More recently, a number of piperazines, synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids emerged, which were marketed as ‘legal’ alternatives to controlled substances.” 

Source: UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS, 2013

Despite these drugs not being new per se, their widespread recreational use and creation of new isomers and analogs has exploded globally with over 348 substances identified as of 2013. As such, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs included NPS  in Resolution 55/1 in 2012, Resolution 56/4 in 2013, and a new resolution in 2014 building on the prior two resolutions (as well as the 2014 Expert Consultation on New Psychoactive Substances) to address drugs that remain outside the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 with the aim of preventing potential threats to public health. Countries have rushed to identify NPS through early warning systems based on the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), but the amount of new psychoactive substances are increasing faster than governments can restrict them. The data generated by increased monitoring of NPS should be used for public health rather than to further criminalize the people who use them.

In North America, NPS are better known on the street by terms such as, “legal highs” or “research chemicals,” essentially substances that have been labeled “not for human consumption” to get around the law.  In the media they are known by sensational non-scientific branding such as “bath salts,” “spice” and “plant food.”  The first media headlines started coming out in the 2000s, with police units across North America blaming criminals “bath salts” for psychotic behaviour. The case of the Miami zombie attack, an African American man was murdered by the cops while chewing off someone’s face, with the police claiming in their defence that he was crazed on bath salts.  Once the coroners report came back negative for bath salts, the media myth had already propagated itself in the mainstream public’s consciousness as many believed that legal highs lead to psychosis. In North America there have been polarized approaches to fighting NPS, from decriminalization of all substances in small amounts in Mexico, to the state by state and federal rush bans of various classes of NPS in the United States.  While Mexico’s approach to decriminalizing drugs was not in direct relation to NPS, this could arguably be a trend towards acknowledging that the war on drugs is futile and we need to push resources towards public health services rather than criminalization. This blogpost will examine Canada’s approach to regulating NPS, as well as different policy frameworks available to further reduce the harm for young people who use drugs.

Canada has been moving at a sloths pace to regulate these substances, placing Ketamine in Schedule I in 2005 (arguably a NPS according to the UNODC) and in 2012 also rescheduling  MDMA as Schedule 1, along with amphetamines and some previously Schedule III cathinones (β-keto amphetamines), such as MDPV but not Mephedrone. Ironically, these cathinone drugs are of the same chemical structure as Bupropion (3-chloroNtert-butyl-β-ketoamphetamine), one of the most popular anti-depressants and  smoking cessation aid in North America.  Bupropion is so widely available that it is sold over the counter at some pharmacies in Canada.  For further understanding the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA)’s definitions and interpretations of amphetamines and their isomers and analogs, please see this detailed report by Isomer Designs.  Due to the vague language of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act many Canadian based vendors to stay open and until recently there have been very few charges. Most recently one of the longest running legal high companies Izms and PurePillz have  had charges laid by the Toronto Police, leading to a widespread fear of future crack downs on other legal high companies, including synthetic cannabinoid manufacturers.  That being said, there is no legal precedent for considering synthetic cannabinoids a controlled substance in Canada, so the charges will probably not stick in court.  Even if vendors were to go down, with the globalization of drugs happening online any Canadian can find a lab online to produce a new drug that goes beyond the substances scheduled in the CDSA.  This ban does not protect young people who use drugs, as the substances are still widely available for cheap online and remain unregulated.

NPS are important as their very existence wears away the myth that the war on drugs has a chance of working, as the second that a member state places a ban on a substance several new legal analogs pop up to take its place.  In countries which actively drug test their population like the US, synthetic versions of drugs like cannabis increase in proliferation and present new risks.  Due to mislabelling of these legal highs and lack of regulation, in some countries there have been several related emergency room visits.  Oftentimes these legal highs will find their way into illicit drugs like MDMA, actually increasing the risk of overdose.  Obviously this trend in NPS is a concern to not just member states, but also young people who use drugs and harm reduction services globally.  We need a rational approach to NPS that is evidence-based, and need to stay away from media hysteria and look at objective policy approaches to reduce drug related harm. In increasing monitoring on NPS we should be using this data for public health rather than working to further criminalize the young people who use them.  Lucky for us, there is already more than one member state responding to NPS in a way that is targeted at improving the health of people who use drugs. In order to come up with a new approach to regulating drugs, we will explore two evidence-based policy solutions for reducing the potential harms of New Psychoactive Substances; creating a legalized and regulated market for NPS, as well as increasing access to drug checking for party drug users.

Drugs, drugs, drugs

Legalize, Regulate, Educate

New Zealand has taken a completely opposite approach to New Psychoactive Substances, as they found that despite the rush to ban them they could never keep up with the amount of new drugs on the market. As such, they have introduced a new regulatory process where producers and vendors of legal highs will be licensed by the state as a means of protecting the health of consumers.  Ross Bell from the New Zealand Drug Foundation met with CSSDP Outreach Director Lisa Campbell to talk about the future of a legalized and regulated market for NPS:

Test it Before you Ingest It

ChEckIT TentAs we collect more and more stats on the rise of New Psychoactive Substances, it’s essential that our health services catch up to these emerging trends.  Fortunately for us, Vienna has had services geared towards party drug users since the 90’s, through ChEckIt, a public health service created in partnership with is a joint project of Suchthilfe Vienna and the Clinical Institute of Medical and Chemical Laboratory Diagnostics – Vienna General Hospital, funded by the Addiction and Drug Coordination Vienna nonprofit GmbH and the Federal Ministry of Health.  Similar to North American public health services for party drug users like TRIP Project and DanceSafe, ChEckIt provides access to harm reduction information and supplies, with an special focus on access to drug checking both onsite and at dance music events to keep young people who use drugs safe.  The results of their testing are posted publicly through a colour coded system both at the events at which they’re doing outreach, as well as at their Homebase.

CheckItPillzCanadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy had the great experience of visiting ChEckIt’s Homebase with Donald MacPherson from the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, as well as our colleagues from SSDP UK & SSDP Ireland.  Not only does ChEckIt do High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)  and LC-MS to do drug checking at parties, they also have a community space where they run harm reduction group programming, as well as access to mental health services like counselling and addictions treatment. Instead of  punishing young people for taking NPS, ChEckIt empowers Austrian youth to know what’s in their drugs.  One of the biggest dangers of NPS is the increase in mixing, as dealers increasingly turn to research chemicals to avoid law enforcement and save costs as shortages in precursors lead to price hikes.  Many drug policy experts do not realize that supply reduction leads to an increase in the production and consumption of NPS, as well as cuts in traditional dance drugs like MDMA and Ketamine.  As such, ChEckIt has a warning system designed to alert users on the number of adulterants, testing for hundreds of different substances in under 10 minutes.  For more on drug testing, check out the TEDI Project Guidelines for Drug Checking Methodology, developed by the EU funded Nightlife Empowerment & Well-being Implementation Project. It’s clear from the above alternative policy approaches that another way is possible for protecting youth through decriminalizing drugs and putting public health information in the hands of young people who use them.