MEPs adopt new risk-based rules on psychoactive substances

New rules will protect citizens by classifying 'legal' highs according to the dangers associated with them, writes Jacek Protasiewicz.

By Jacek Protasiewicz

17 Mar 2014

After a speedy process of negotiations and very productive cooperation between the political groups, the European parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee supported my report on the new psychoactive substances (NPS) with an overwhelming majority. Dangerous NPS known as 'legal', or since yesterday 'lethal', highs will no longer be available to consumers across Europe.

In the past, several member states had to tackle negative effects caused by these NPS. In some of them, including my home country, they have become very popular among youngsters reaching the point where their negative impact could be compared to the effects of an epidemic. The data gathered by researchers confirms the worrying trend – NPS keep attracting consumers as more available, cheaper and 'legal' alternatives to cocaine or ecstasy.

The problem had been brought to the attention of EU stakeholders back in 2011 by the Polish EU council presidency and shortly after came the decisive and firm response to this phenomenon from the Civic Platform government in Poland. Soon it turned out that in the reality of a single market with no border checks on movement of people and goods – which we normally very much appreciate – responses at national level against NPS are simply insufficient. It became clear to me back then that in order to prevent situations in which a ban in one country is circumvented by the creation of border smart shops (as in case of the Polish-Czech Republic border) or the substances are purchased online, we must take action at EU level. Therefore, I am proud as rapporteur that parliament has joined the commission in its approach, which is complementary to the efforts of the member states. The realities of the single market's flow of products, as well as the dynamic development of online sales, requires us to act together against the dangerous NPS as swiftly and efficiently as we can. Moreover, being cheaper and less risky in terms of legal consequences, new psychoactive substances attract more and more interest from organised crime groups.

"We will now have substances assessed at EU level as legal highs of low, moderate and severe risk"

The new EU legislation on this matter makes the process of withdrawing deadly NPS from the market more democratic, transparent, effective and tailor-made, since the substances will now be classified according to the risks they pose – resulting in adequate action being taken against them.

We will now have substances assessed at EU level as legal highs of low, moderate and severe risk. There will be no action for the legal highs assessed as posing low risks. Legal highs of moderate risk will be subject to permanent consumer market restrictions, but will be available on the single market for strictly authorised purpose. For severe risk substances, permanent market restriction will be introduced, which means that production, manufacture, import and export to and from the union will be prohibited and, under the directive, criminal law provisions will apply. Furthermore, severe risk substances will be available only for rigorously authorised uses, such as scientific research, or manufacture of other substances, or products under the condition that the original psychoactive substance cannot be abused or recovered.

An important introduction compared to the current system is the possibility of temporary restriction measures introduced by the commission – upon notification from member states – on psychoactive substances that cause serious health problems or even fatalities. Such substances will be then quickly withdrawn from the market while a risk assessment is prepared.

Last but not least, since action will be taken against a number of substances at EU level while there are different circumstances in the member states concerning these NPS – we ensured a certain level of the flexibility for national authorities. Therefore, member states will be able to go beyond EU actions. When a substance is qualified by the commission as posing low or moderate risks at union level, any interested country, if it so wishes, can maintain more stringent measures against a particular substance if these are already in place or introduce them if a problem appears.

In summary, we have improved the proposal of the commission, providing for a very smart and rapid system of response against risky substances advertised to citizens as 'legal'. We believe in parliament that this will provide for an added value tool against new kinds of drugs and addictive substances. Finally, we highlight in our position an urgent need for comprehensive and advanced data gathering on new psychoactive substances, as well as for education, prevention and treatment programmes promoted and adequately supported at national and EU level. It is our responsibility to protect misled citizens from the harm just a single use of a dangerous psychoactive substance could cause.