Designer drugs, the chemical rising

“Two new drugs are created every week” this is the conclusion of the last report of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug addiction. These news kinds of drugs called Designer drug counter the law and are legal. Focus on this new drug market in Belgium.

Written by Pauline Coppieters.

Picture of Louis’s New Psychoactive Substances
Picture of Louis’s New Psychoactive Substances

The worldwide expansion of a new kind of drug called New Psychoactive Substances poses many challenges among the policy makers. This drug, designed to avoid the illegal status, is a threat for the public health.

The sun is already high in the sky when Louis[*] appears at Vrijthof, a little square next to Maastricht station, a city at the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. He didn’t sleep for the past two days, it seems he had a powdery weekend. Native of Belgium, he is achieving a PhD in Mathematics in the Netherlands. He is passionate about informatics and an addict, quite a nasty mix. “I have always been interested in all different kind of drugs, I knew a lot of things about them before my first drug experience” says Louis.

Since his first user-experience, Louis has tried a lot of different kinds. But those, which he is very fond off and interested, are labeled New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), or in the jargon of the users “Designer drugs”. As explains it Michaël Hogge from Eurotox, the Socio-epidemiological Observatory of Alcohol and Drug in Federation Wallonia-Brussels, the NPS are legally derived from a conventional drug by reproducing approximately the same effects. “These are products manufactured in laboratories on the basis of synthetic molecules, which are going to be transformed in order to get a new product. More generically, it’s all molecules of synthetic origin that appear on the drug market as a substitute of conventional illegal drugs.”

Contrary to what their naming suggest, this is not a new phenomenon. The term “new” substance references to molecules, which were unknown a couple years ago. However in the 70’s, there was already a small circle of users. In the 90’s, the phenomenon expanded itself and the real outbreak was at the beginning of this millennium. In 2014, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) detected 101 new substances across the EU. This number is twice as much than three years ago, which proves the trend is on the rise. The European Institution has also identified more than 653 European websites selling designers drugs to EU consumers.

Graphic from the last report of the EMCDDA.
Graphic from the last report of the EMCDDA.
Evolution of the number of NPS in Belgium
Evolution of the number of NPS in Belgium

This label, Designer drugs, covers an impressive number of synthetic products with various effects. There are synthetic substances of classic drugs such as cocaine or cannabis, but also new drugs, which has never stretched in it before. They’re usually present in the form of powders or crystals. “The effect on the NPS depends on the product. Some of them have a similar effect as the original one and others are stronger.” adds Louis.


Like Louis, people are more and more willing to try these news substances. This expansion can be related with the evolution of the chemical knowledge, but especially due to the development of the Internet. “Internet allows a worldwide distribution. Everything happens behind a computer, everybody can easily order a substance and then a few days later they receive a package in the mail containing their ordered drug.” explains Bruno Valkeneers from “Liaison anti-prohibitionist”, a Belgian association that distributes information and promotes open debate on drugs.

The production of the NPS takes place mostly in India or China. These firms look like pharmaceutical companies, but most of them aren’t. Then, the user can buy them online through a rising number of website dedicated to the sale of NPS. There are also in Europe workover areas. They import large quantities of NPS and then they’ll take care of all the packaging that attracts mostly young people and sell them online.

Like underlines it Louis, it’s important to distinguish the different kind of websites. “Websites with attractive graphic and packaging offer most of the time products of poorer quality because the sole objective of the seller is profit. These are often scams that do not deliver the ordered drugs or cut them with other cheap substances, which can make them even more dangerous.” The good quality drugs can be found on more discreet website who are difficult to find and an invitation is required. Taking his computer from his bag, Louis shows the best ones. “Every aware NPS addict knows that they need to avoid flashy websites”.

Picture of the website which offers chemicals with attractive packaging.
Picture of the website which offers chemicals with attractive packaging.

The grey area

“The NPS market has developed itself as a consequence of the prohibition” explains Bruno Valkeneers. “Drugs laws have specific lists with several products, which are prohibited, anything outside this list is allowed. So from a prohibited molecule, scientists can remove a branch, transform the molecule and the drug is no longer in the list.” This is a grey area, it’s not totally legal, because an authorization is required to be in possession of those kind of chemical substances, but not illegal according to the drugs law.

The chemical history of the ecstasy

  • The MDA also called 3.4-methylenedioxyamphetamine is the parent drug of ecstasy. It’s an amphetamine derivative, which appeared on the market in the 60’s and was banned in the 70’s.
  • The MDMA also called 3.4-methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine or ecstasy is a unique derivative of amphetamine that excites the nervous system. Known as the love pills, the Merck laboratories have discovered it in 1914. On the market in 70’s, the MDMA was prohibited in the mid 80’s.
  • Then the MDEA and MBDB appeared in the 80’s to counter the MDMA’s law.
  • Today, new derivatives appear regularly such as the 2-AI, 2-AT, MDAI, MDMAI and 5-APB, 6-APB, 5-APBD, 6-APBD, 5-MAPB, 6-MAPB… These are all NPS and derivative of the MDMA.


Evolution of the MDMA
Evolution of the MDMA

“The prohibition motivated me to become a dealer of Designer drugs. When the government banned mushrooms, I started to buy similar hallucinogens on the web, which were legal. As I knew people around me were also interested to get some of these psychoactive substances, I bought them in a big amount and started my business.” explains Louis.

As the Research Chemicals aren’t considered as illegal products in the national and international law, the narcotics law can’t prosecute the person for possession of these drugs. “The additional conjuring trick for the producer to avoid any responsibility is the label “Not for human consumption”. By offering these products as incense, bath salts, fertilizers, etc. the producers circumvent laws on human consumption products.” explains Michaël Hogge.

 The state delay

Because the number of NPS is steadily increasing and when one become illegal, producers create a new one, the State is always a step behind. It takes time before a new product can be pinned as potentially dangerous for the health and therefore being added to the list of prohibited products. At the European level, it takes about two years to prohibit the marketing of a product. “During this period, there is no legal obstruction to the sale of those new psychoactive molecules. This allows time for entrepreneurs to sell their stocks, create new product and herring.” adds Michaël Hogge.

To counter this problem, the European Commission launched some initiatives. First, they created in 1998 the Early Warning system, a health-monitoring tool supervised by the EMCDDA. The system was implemented in every Member States and it aimed to detect new substances at the same time as assessing their risks. This flow of information led to the prohibition of the consumption of a product. As it was not enough and the number of new molecules rose every day, the European Commission launched a proposal for a Directive in 2013. This proposal suggested to hasten the bans on specific substances, which represented a treat for the human health. Up till now, it’s still missing the approval of the European Council.

Belgium has decided to go further than this European decision by banning not some substance but every NPS. The Belgian answer to the problem is to forbid a family of products based on a generic classification. “The Belgian law will no longer consider that specific products need to be banned, but families of products that share a common molecular structure.” says Bruno Valkeneer. Proposed in 2014, the law is not yet implemented.

Picture of the website which offers Designer drugs
Picture of the website which offers Designer drugs

The debate on legalization

This prohibitive response of the Belgian state worries associations working on the field. They fear the consequences of this new system, which could create more dangerous situations for the human health. “This ban will promote the drugs’ black market. It will fall into the hands of unscrupulous manufacturers because the risks are greater for them.” stresses Michaël Hogge. Drugs on prohibited markets are of poorer quality because the different intermediates cut the product with various substances to make a higher profit margin. At the end, the consumer could have in hand a product cut with products, which are even more dangerous, that the psychoactive molecule itself.

As underlines it “Eurotox” and “Liaison anti-prohibitionist”, the demand will always be there and the prohibition has no effect on the consumption. “We can dismantle a clandestine laboratory, another one will open elsewhere, we can arrest a drug dealer, and another one will take over his business. The problem won’t dissappear.” explains Michaël Hogge from Eurotox. According to Louis, a legalized market is the best solution. “People will always find a way to get drugs. What we need today is a system that can educate and supervise the drug market. We need to pass from a deregulated system to a legalized one, which offer rules and security.”

The danger of these drugs is real. As the Designer drugs have never been tested on human, the consumer takes a risk when using them. The vast majority of these products does not mention the exact composition of their content and in which quantity to use it. Some of them require a really accurate dosing because the barrier between a funny and deadly dosing is close. In addition, information about the effects on the short and long terms are missing due to the fact that most of these molecules are new. However death can’t be excluded if the NPS are taken in bad conditions or mix with other substances.

These new kinds of drugs are sobering. It’s a revolution in the consumption of drugs as well as in the public heath policies. As it’s a new phenomenon, time is needed to adopt the best solution. Legislation or prohibition, the result has to take into account the users and endorse a long-term vision.






[*] The name has been change in order to keep the anonymity of the person interviewed