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A new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has revealed that there is “An unprecedented expansion” of synthetic drugs in the drug market.

The 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment also reports that new psychoactive substances (NPS) are flooding a market for synthetic drugs, which has long been dominated by amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) such as ecstasy and methamphetamine now more widely used than opium or heroin.

“There is a dynamic and unprecedented global expansion of the synthetic drugs market both in scope and variety,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC. “New substances are quickly created and marketed, challenging law enforcement efforts to keep up with the traffickers and curb public health risks.”

Marketed as ‘legal highs’ and ‘designer drugs’, the new psychoactive substances are proliferating but in the absence of an international framework, responses to the problem vary significantly from country to country, according to UNODC.

None of the nearly 350 NPS reported globally in over 90 countries at the end of 2013 is currently under international control. And although UNODC has detected 348 NPS, the actual number of these substances available worldwide may be significantly higher, given that this figure only reflects reports of official sources.

The report also notes that the term ‘new’ does not necessarily refer to new inventions but to substances that have been recently become more available like khat.

Khat, a plant-based NPS until recently confined to traditional use in East Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, is increasingly being trafficked from East African countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, to European destinations, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and even as far afield as North America. Lately, khat has also been seized in East and South-East Asia, as cultivation of the plant has extended to that region.
Meanwhile, the use of synthetic cannabinoids, which mimic the effects of cannabis, is soaring; the total number of these substances almost doubled from 60 in mid-2012 to 110 by 2013.

The report notes that a particularly worrying development is that NPS are no longer restricted to niche markets.