Fostering the detection of "legal highs"
"Legal highs" are new psychoactive substances (NPS) with similar - and sometimes stronger- effects than illicit drugs such as cannabis, heroin and cocaine. They are rather cheap and easily produced, and they have recently gained popularity even amongst non-usual drug users, often teenagers and young adults, thereby becoming a new serious public health threat, also in Europe.
Currently, there is little or no information about the potential impact of most NPS on health and often they cannot be detected and identified by control and hospital laboratories as there are no readily available detection methods.
Scientific experts at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) are helping to overcome the latter problem by using highly advanced analytical and chemo-informatics tools for the structural characterisation of these unknown new psychoactive substances when they enter the European territory. Once their chemical "fingerprint" has been established, most analytical control laboratories can use it to identify the substances, e.g. Customs and police authorities in confiscated samples, as well as hospitals in the blood or urine of drug-related victims.
JRC scientists further support the detection of NPS by compiling an extensive library of these substances which serves as a reference and helps control and hospital laboratories to identify them. In the last 12 months, the chemical structure of approximately 100 NPS has been unravelled and is now part of the library. It also contains around 20 NPS that JRC experts have helped report for the first time to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). This work also assists the EMCDDA in releasing, if needed, a rapid general warning on a NPS entering the market and providing relevant analytical data to help with their detection and characterisation.
The JRC case-study recently published in Forensic Science International, provides a first overview on the systematic analytical characterization method and on the approach that the JRC experts are developing for the identification of new psychoactive substances. The EMCDDA, who visited the JRC on the 23rd of February, highlighted the vital importance of this project in the fight to limit the availability and proliferation of "legal highs" in the European Union, and spreading the warning fast enough.
NPS are often advertised as legal alternatives to illicit drugs, often commercialised as "legal highs", "herbal highs", "bath salts", "research chemicals", targeting teenagers and young adults and are traded also via the Internet. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction declares that over the past six years there has been "an unprecedented increase in the number, type and availability of new psychoactive substances in Europe" with the identification of 101 new substances being reported for the year 2014 (EMCDDA, Drug Report 2015).