EU takes steps to tackle 'lethal highs'

With the number of 'legal' highs on the market rising rapidly, an EU level response to dangerous substances is needed to protect consumers, argues Viviane Reding.

By Viviane Reding

17 Mar 2014

Legal highs – or new psychoactive substances used as alternatives to illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy – are as dangerous as they are widespread. New drugs are mushrooming in Europe, challenging our existing control systems. Every week, more than one new substance is detected somewhere in the EU. And the problem has worsened sharply in recent years: the number of substances identified more than tripled between 2009 and 2013, jumping from 24 to 81 in the space of a year. These substances are easily available, often at the click of a mouse: they are increasingly sold over the internet and have rapidly spread in many EU countries.

The number of users is high – and most of them are young. More than two million people in Europe are taking pills or powders that are sold to them as 'legal' and therefore considered by them as safe. Most of these substances have never been tested on humans and the risks they pose to human health are not always known. Far too often, these 'legal' highs are lethal. These substances can kill or severely damage people's health: they can cause hallucinations, psychiatric problems, delirium, dependence, spread of blood-borne infections such as HIV or hepatitis C among injecting users, and so on – just like illicit drugs do.

"The new rules will make member states' drug policies more effective, resulting in more drugs being banned at EU level and more quickly"

Drugs don't stop at national borders: 80 per cent of new psychoactive substances are reported in more than one member state. Action taken at national level against these substances therefore has limited effectiveness. We have seen this very clearly in the past few years: when Poland closes down shops where these new psychoactive substances are sold, such shops simply reopen across the border, in the Czech Republic, and are sold across the German border. And banning newly detected substances in all EU member states takes time: a minimum of two years under current rules. In a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to take legal highs off the market – swiftly and in all EU countries.

That is why the European commission put new rules on the table, which were backed by the European parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee in a vote on 10 March.

Under the new law, harmful new psychoactive substances will be withdrawn quickly from the market, without jeopardising their various legitimate industrial and commercial uses. Speed makes all the difference. With the new rules, the EU would be able to take action much earlier and more quickly. The length of the basic procedure will be cut from 24 to 10 months. In addition, in case of an immediate risk, temporary market bans can be introduced within weeks.

At the moment, the union has a choice between imposing criminal measures to address the substance or taking no action at all. There are cases in which no action is taken at union level because the risk presented by a substance is real but not sufficient to justify criminal measures. The new rules will make member states' drug policies more effective, resulting in more drugs being banned at EU level and more quickly.

The new rules will introduce a more proportionate approach. Around 20 per cent of psychoactive substances have useful legitimate uses. Many are used in the production of medicines. Others have various uses in the chemical or high-tech industry as solvents or cleaning agents. We need to ensure that these legitimate uses can continue, while protecting the consumers from the risks they incur when they consume these substances.

This is why we also propose a smarter and more proportionate system that takes into account the numerous legitimate uses that these substances sometimes have. Under the new, graduated approach, substances posing a moderate risk – that generally does not provoke lethal injuries – will be restricted from the consumer market, and cannot be sold in a shop or over the internet anymore. However, they can still be used in industry.

Substances posing a severe risk – substances that are life-threatening and can cause serious health problems – will be subject to full market restriction. Which means that in addition to being banned from the consumer market, their use in industry will also be restricted and subject to tight conditions. The severe-risk substances will also be subject to common criminal law provisions that include imprisonment, the period of imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the crime.

The parliament's rapporteurs, Jacek Protasiewicz and Teresa Jiménez-Becerril, moved this important file forward. I hope now we can continue to make swift progress in parliament and in the council. Europeans are waiting; our response needs to be strong and decisive.

Read the most recent articles written by Viviane Reding - Gender quotas are 'hammer to smash the glass ceiling' for women