The Rise of New Psychoactive Substances

New psychoactive substances (NPS) are a range of drugs that mimic the effects of other illicit drugs like LSD, cannabis, cocaine, and ecstasy. NPS are constantly changing in chemical structure as a way to circumvent national drug laws. These changes, however, also increase the unpredictability of the drug’s effects and potential to cause major adverse reactions.
NPS are often labeled as legal, which causes some users to believe that they are safe to use. The drugs are untested, unregulated, and oftentimes, the effects are unknown before they are used. The Australian Drug Foundation explains that NPS drugs can be referred to as “ synthetic drugs, legal highs, herbal highs, party pills, synthetic cocaine, synthetic cannabis, herbal ecstasy, NBOMes, bath salts, plant fertilizer, herbal incense, room deodorizers, aphrodisiac tea, social tonics, new and emerging drugs (NEDs), drug analogues and research chemicals. These products can sometimes be marked ‘not for human consumption’.” Production rates of NPS have skyrocketed in recent years—in 2015, 643 new psychoactive substances were reported to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, with a majority being synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, stimulants, and classic hallucinogens. The UNODC explains, “The use of NPS is often linked to health problems. In general, side effects of NPS range from seizures to agitation, aggression, acute psychosis as well as potential development of dependence. NPS users have frequently been hospitalized with severe intoxications. Safety data on toxicity and carcinogenic potential of many NPS are not available or very limited, and information on long-term adverse effects or risks are still largely unknown. Purity and composition of products containing NPS are often not known, which places users at high risk as evidenced by hospital emergency admissions and deaths, sometimes as a result of poly-substance abuse.” Many NPS contain additives and cutting agents that can be extremely dangerous, especially if injected. According to the ADF, “It’s very hard to know the effects of NPS, even if they’ve been taken before, as these products are constantly changing. Taking a low dose first could help determine the effects and the strength of the drug. Activities like driving, swimming and operating machinery while under the influence should therefore be avoided,” and the packaging of the drugs often does not contain all ingredients or the correct amounts, increasing the risk of overdose.

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