Identifying new psychoactive substances
Over the years, the JRC has become a strategic partner in the international fight against new psychoactive substances, a growing concern in the European Union.
The JRC has been invited this week to share its expertise in the area of identifying new psychoactive substances on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied chemistry. We take stock of JRC work concerning New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).
NPS are narcotic or psychotropic drugs that are manufactured to mimic the effects of controlled drugs (cocaine, cannabis, heroine or amphetamines). They can cause considerable health problems by affecting the central nervous system of users that smoke, ingest, sniff or inject new substances on which we know almost nothing.
Users can find them in physical or on-line shops or on the darknet. Customs officials are the first ones coming in contact with these substances when they arrive at the borders. The role of customs laboratories is of fundamental importance not only from an economic point of view, but also in the interest of public health and the protection and safety of EU citizens.
In 2017 alone, law enforcement agencies across Europe reported close to 64 160 seizures of NPS to the EU Early Warning System on new drugs coordinated by the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). However, customs laboratories sometimes encounter difficulties to identify and control these products, especially due to the huge number of NPS continuously reaching the market.
They can be also confronted with totally unknown products. To date, customs officers, police and laboratories are confronted with more than one thousand illicit substances. The identification of these new substances is a challenge for them, especially due to the lack of scientific data and reference standards. NPS are chemicals that are not necessarily controlled under national or international law.
However, the new Regulation (EU) 2017/2101 and Directive (EU) 2017/2103 of the European Parliament and of the Council, in force since November 2018, establish the mechanism for swift reporting and monitoring of NPS detected in the Member States. This may lead to further possible measures such as a ban of the most harmful substances in order to protect EU citizens and public health.
Customs are one of the main actors on the frontline contributing to the implementation of this new legislation package on NPS. In this task, they face the large diversity of chemical products having the potential to be used as new psychoactive substance or even as new drug precursor.
How is the JRC supporting this issue?
The JRC works in close collaboration with the Customs Laboratories European Network (CLEN), which is coordinated by the Directorate-General Taxation and Customs Union (DG TAXUD). The JRC provides the CLEN with scientific support to help identify unknown substances and in particular NPS, principally to facilitate the rapid identification and characterization of seized samples.
The activity performed by the JRC and the CLEN between 2014 and 2018 has produced several achievements:
- Close to 500 samples from customs and forensic laboratories have now been analysed by the JRC;
- Among these, at least 25 new NPS were identified for the very first time;
- The samples that were examined were predominantly NPS, but also included a significant number of drug precursors, steroids and growth hormones which are also of huge concern;
- The analytical data and the molecular identification of these samples are now stored in electronic format in the JRC database, which facilitates the interpretation of new unknown substances for future problem cases.
On-site detection techniques
Besides the work carried out in JRC's own laboratories, the JRC is also involved in the fine-tuning of on-site detection techniques. There is an urgent need to develop rapid, non-destructive and cheap analytical methods for the detection of NPS on-site to help prevent harm to customs officials.
Currently, JRC scientists test the potential of Raman spectroscopy for this purpose. This technique has the advantage of being non-contact and non-destructive, performing measurements through glass or plastic containers while enhancing the speed of the analysis and reducing the exposure of operators.