Monday, 14 May 2012

New drugs and what to do with them

A couple of weeks ago the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) released a report that reported on the large number of new drugs that had been detected in the European Union in 2011. According to the report, a total of 49 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time in 2011. This represents the largest number of substances ever reported in a single year, almost one every week, up from 41 substances reported in 2010 and 24 in 2009.

Many of these substances come under two main headings - 'synthetic cannabinoids' and 'synthetic cathinones'. Synthetic cannabinoids are the products often referred to in the Australia media as 'synthetic cannabis', with the best known of these being 'Kronic'. The cathinones are often described as being similar in effect to stimulant drugs like amphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine. The most popular of these is a substance called 'mephedrone'.

There was a time when substances identified in Europe or other parts of the world took quite a bit of time to make it to Australia. That is not the case today. The Internet has changed the way drugs are distributed and drug information is disseminated. Without a doubt some of these new substances are making it here and the problem is that we know nothing about them.

So why are so many of these substances popping up? Unfortunately, the way that authorities usually deal with a drug they know little or nothing about is to ban it. Making a substance illegal is supposed to stop people from using it - if you don't stop, there will be legal consequences. The theory behind banning something is simple but we know from experience that it doesn't always work that way.

Certainly some people change their behaviour when a substance is made illegal. You only have to look at the New Zealand experience around the 'party pills' phenomenon to see that when these products were made illegal many people stopped using them. That said, there are others who don't. In fact, for some people, the fact that it is illegal makes it even more interesting! This is particularly true for young people who are going through a time when they are constantly testing rules and boundaries, just to see how far they can go ...

Another unintended consequence of banning something is that people look for alternatives. This is when enterprising drug manufacturers start 'tweaking' molecules and change the existing 'illegal substance' into one that just manages to get around the new bans. Unfortunately, this is where it begins to get scary for those messing with these new substances because we have absolutely no idea of what it is that they are taking and what the potential risks could be for the user. They really are the 'guinea pigs' for the future!

Over the years I've seen Australian authorities ban many substances, usually not based on much evidence of significant harms, and usually useage rates have risen as a result. They certainly haven't disappeared because they were made illegal. With the large numbers of new substances coming onto the market we've got to find a better way of dealing with the problem.

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