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UN: World struggling to cope with legal drugs that mimic illicit substances

Kelley Mccall/AP, file

A package of K2, a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals. Five synthetic cannabinoids used in K2 or Spice as it is sometimes known were placed on the banned list in 2011. A U.N. report said Wednesday that the world is struggling to deal with the growing number of substances that mimic illegal drugs.

International authorities are struggling to deal with the number of drugs that mimic the effects of illegal substances but are not banned, a United Nations report said Wednesday.

The World Drugs Report said that there were 251 known New Psychoactive Substances and they now outnumbered the number of internationally controlled drugs, 234.

It said NPS were “substances of abuse” that “may pose a public health threat.”

The two most common NPS in the U.S. had “a serious negative impact on health,” the report said, adding that NPS-use by students was more widespread than any other drug apart from cannabis.

“While new harmful substances have been emerging with unfailing regularity on the drug scene, the international drug control system is floundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity of the phenomenon known as new psychoactive substances,” the report said.

The problem, it said, was a “hydra-headed one,” with makers of NPS making new variants “to escape the new legal frameworks that are constantly being developed to control known substances.”

It said the legal drugs included synthetic forms of cannabis, mephedrone and MDPV, along with plant-based substances included mostly kratom, khat and Salvia divinorum.

“What makes NPS especially dangerous and problematic is the general perception surrounding them,” the report said.

“They have often been marketed as ‘legal highs,’ implying that they are safe to consume and use, while the truth may be quite different,” it said.

“In order to mislead the authorities, suppliers have also marketed and advertised their products aggressively and sold them under the names of relatively harmless everyday products such as room fresheners, bath salts, herbal incenses and even plant fertilizers,” it added.

In the preface to the report, Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said the number of NPS and the “speed with which they have emerged in all regions of the world is one of the most notable trends in drug markets over the past five years.”

“The global nature of the problem requires a response based on international cooperation and universal coverage,” he said.

The report said the U.S. had identified 158 NPS in 2012, the largest number worldwide, and more than twice as many as the European Union.

“The most frequently reported substances were synthetic cannabinoids (51 in 2012, up from 2 in 2009) and synthetic cathinones (31 in 2012, up from 4 in 2009),” it said.

“Both have a serious negative impact on health. Excluding cannabis, use of NPS among students is more widespread than the use of any other drug, owing primarily to synthetic cannabinoids as contained in Spice or similar herbal mixtures,” it added. “Use of NPS among youth in the United States appears to be more than twice as widespread as in the European Union.”

In 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed five synthetic cannabinoids used in Spice or K2 on schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.

"Physiological effects of K2 include increased heart rate and increase of blood pressure. It appears to be stored in the body for long periods of time, and therefore the long-term effects on humans are not fully known," the DEA says on its website.

The report said that global drug use on the whole had “remained stable.”

“While there has been some increase in the estimated total number of users of any illicit substance, estimates show that the number of drug users with dependence or drug use disorders has remained stable,” it said.

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