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European Commission

Viviane Reding

Vice-President Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice

Tackling 'legal highs': A quicker, smarter and more proportionate response

Press Conference/Brussels

17 September 2013

1. Tackling one of the greatest challenges in drug policy

Do you know what 'spice' or 'meow-meow' are? What might sound like innocent play can end up deadly. I am talking about new psychoactive substances, that imitate the effects of illicit narcotics such as ecstasy or cocaine.

Make no mistake. These so-called ‘legal highs’ should in fact be called “lethal highs”. Although these new psychoactive substances are marketed as ‘legal’ alternatives to illicit drugs they are dangerous and can be fatal. For instance, the substance 5-IT reportedly killed 24 people in just five months (between April and August 2012). And 4-MA, a substance which imitates amphetamine, was associated with 21 deaths.

Take Sean, who was 22, living in Belfast and who died in July, just two months ago, after taking a powder called China White. He bought it in a shop around the corner.

Or Alex, who was 19, a student from Edinburgh, died last year during a rock festival in Scotland. He took a powder called Benzo Fury. He received it from fellow festival goers.

The sad truth is: these cases are more than just headlines; there are many Seans' and Alexs' in Europe. Because there are more than 2 million people in Europe who are taking pills or powders that are sold to them as ‘legal’ and, therefore considered safe by their users. Most of these substances have never even been tested on humans and nobody can say what risks they really pose to human health. Far too often, these ‘legal’ highs are lethal.

That is why today the European Commission takes strong action to protect Europeans, in particular young Europeans, from the risks of such ‘legal highs’.

2. The scale of the problem

Designer drugs are mushrooming in Europe, challenging our existing control systems. Every week, one new substance is detected somewhere in the EU. And the problem has worsened sharply in recent years: the number of substances identified tripled between 2009 and 2012, from 24 to 73 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. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that 5% of young Europeans have used legal highs. As many as 16% have used such substances in Ireland, and close to 10% in Poland, Latvia and the United Kingdom – and we suspect that the real numbers are probably even higher.

This is very dangerous. These substances can kill and can cause severe health damage: hallucination, delirium, hypertension, spread of blood-borne infections such as HIV or hepatitis C., and so on - just like illicit drugs do. We have a responsibility to act; to protect Europeans, in particular the young generation.

Our response needs to be strong and decisive. The current EU system for detecting and banning these drugs is not fit to tackle the large increase in the number of new psychoactive substances on the market.

This is why the European Commission is proposing today to strengthen the EU’s ability to respond.

3. A quicker, smarter and more proportionate system

So, what are we proposing exactly? We are proposing stronger EU rules – a Regulation and a Directive, under which harmful new psychoactive substances will be withdrawn from the market quickly. And we are also proposing smarter EU rules, which do not jeopardise the various useful legitimate uses of the substances – such as medical or scientific research.

There are two major innovations.

First improvement: speed makes all the difference. Today's legislative proposals would enable action to be taken much earlier and more quickly. The length of the basic procedure will be cut from 24 to 10 months. In addition, in the case of immediate risk, temporary measures can be introduced within weeks to ban the substance from the market. These temporary measures will make sure that the substance is no longer available to consumers whilst a fully-fledged risk assessment of the substance is carried out.

Under the current system, two formal decisions have to be taken and implemented by Member States before a substance is criminalised by the EU and no temporary measures are possible. The result is that today it takes at least 24 months to take the substances out of the shelves. During this time, the substance is harmful and it can even kill.

The second major improvement relates to the appropriateness of our approach. We must bear in mind that numerous new 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. 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 these numerous legitimate uses that these substances could have. Under the new, graduated approach, substances posing a moderate risk - that generally does not provoke lethal injuries or mental impairment - will be restricted from the consumer market, and cannot be sold in a shop or over the internet anymore. But they can be used in industry, for instance.

But substances posing a severe risk – substances that are life-threatening and can lead to the spread of serious diseases – will be subjected 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 subjected to criminal law provisions, as are illicit drugs. These include penalties and imprisonment – the period of imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the crime.

This is a much more proportionate and smarter approach to new psychoactive substances: under the current system, the choice is only between taking no action at the EU level or imposing criminal sanctions. It will also be more effective. It means that the EU will be able to act in cases where substances are dangerous but criminal measures may not be justified.

4. Conclusion

The European internal market has no borders. We therefore need common EU rules to tackle the emergence and rapid spread of new psychoactive substances. Drugs don't stop at national borders. 80% of new psychoactive substances are reported in more than one Member State. Action taken at national level against these substances has therefore limited effectiveness. We have seen this very clearly in the past years: when Poland closes down shops where these health time-bombs - these new psychoactive substances are sold, such shops simply reopen across the border, in the Czech Republic and are sold across the German border.

Harmful new psychoactive substances need to be withdrawn quickly from the market everywhere in the EU. The system that we propose today will enable us to act quicker and more effectively to protect young people, and communities, from their harms.

This is the best anti-drugs programme that the Union can offer. I count on the European Parliament and Member States to adopt these proposals swiftly as this is crucial for preventing major health and social harms.

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