EU plans new clampdown on drugs

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The European Commission will propose today (25 October) new plans to tackle the growing use of drugs in Europe, with the intent of countering the spread of new substances and the use of legal chemicals in the production of drugs such as cocaine or heroin.

The fight against drugs has spread to new fronts in recent years. In the past, authorities focussed on tackling the production, traffic, sale and use of a limited number of illegal substances.

The number of drugs available has increased exponentially and includes new improvised substances made by amateurs (so-called "designer drugs"'), or substances legally available in chemists' shops or even supermarkets that can be turned into powerful drugs (so-called '"legal highs").

The European authorities have registered 115 new substances between 2005 and 2010 with a gradual steep rise year-on-year. In 2010, member states identified 41 new drugs compared to six in 2005.

Moreover, a number of legal chemicals are used in the production of notorious drugs. “No drug can be made without chemicals,” underlined a Commission official.  Some of them are widely available, for example red phosphorus, which is contained in the inflammable tip of matches but is also a key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine.

Impact on legal substances

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding plans to strengthen the existing legislation and to introduce new rules to curb the use of legal substances for illicit activities. At the same time, a clamp-down is also planned on new drugs, according to a document seen by EURACTIV.

The key issue is how to tackle illicit use without affecting legal markets. A source familiar with the dossier said that a comprehensive impact assessment is taking place to classify different substances on the basis of their legal and possibly illegal usage.

“We hope it will be ready by the beginning of next year,” said the EU official. The rumoured idea is to create a new registry for chemical substances, although no definitive decision has been made.

In the past, the chemicals industry opposed the introduction of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH) legislation to classify chemicals used in the EU. Fierce opposition is likely against any new registry that identifies possible illegal uses.

The approach will be tailored to each specific substance. For instance, acetic anhydride is notorious for being a crucial ingredient to make heroin. It can be legally purchased because it is also used as a component of photographic films. “Since no other legal usages are known for this substance, it will be relatively simple to identify legal buyers,” explained the official.

“We are not going to regulate water because it’s used to make cocaine. But if a product is only used for a legal purpose and a not legal purpose, we will know what to do,” said the source.

The Commission plans to act on it by increasing monitoring and rapidity of responses, but “taking into account scientific evidence about the risks posed by these substances,” reads the EU executive communication.

For other products, tracking possible illegal uses is more difficult. This is also the case for over-the-counter medicines that can be used as illegal drugs (so-called legal highs).

The EU official mentioned as an example Sudafed, a drug to counter the effects of common colds produced by a division of Johnson & Johnson and on sale in Ireland and the UK. Sudafed also contains a substance which can be used as an amphetamine.

Tougher rules against trafficking and for assets confiscation

Drug dealers exploit the European common market and are savvy in adopting technology to circumvent rules.

The Commission is therefore aiming at reviewing existing legislation to adapt it to new developments. “We want to make sure that the tools that exist are reinforced and made stronger,” the Commission official said.

The Commission wants to target major cross-border drug trafficking and organised criminal networks by taking steps to “improve the definition of offences and sanctions, possibly with a more detailed breakdown of sanctions,” the Commission official said.

Confiscation of assets will be another field of action, the source said. “Before the end of the year we plan to propose new legislation to strengthen criminal law to recover assets generated from drug activities.''

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, new synthetic drugs, which can be just as dangerous as banned substances, are increasingly popular with 5% of young Europeans saying they have used them. The figures are the highest in Ireland (16%), followed by Poland (9%), Latvia (9%), the UK (8%) and Luxembourg (7%).

Over the past 15 years, the European Commission has helped develop a EU response to drugs, in parallel with national measures. The two main EU legal instruments in anti-drugs policy are on drug trafficking and on the emergence of new drugs (new psychoactive substances), and date respectively from 2004 and 2005.

The Lisbon Treaty gives the EU new powers in the fight against drugs. It defines drug trafficking as one of the “particularly serious crimes with a cross-border dimension” (Article 83 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

New psychoactive substances are new narcotic or psychotropic drugs which may pose a threat to public health comparable to illicit drugs, and which emerged only recently on the market and are not banned. The large majority of these substances are synthetic.

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