New drugs: new policy landscapes

University of Kent, Tuesday 16th December

Briefing paper


This seminar aimed to consider the new policy landscapes inspired or necessitated by the rise of new drugs. The first session focused on the UK Ministerial Review into New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) published in October 2015. The second session considered a broader definition of new drugs and new drug use encompassing, for example, performance and image enhancing drugs, and use of NPS by dependent drug users. The final session explored research priorities from contrasting law enforcement and public health perspectives. The results of our discussions are briefly reported on here.


Session 1: Roundtable discussion of the Ministerial Review on New Psychoactive substances

The speakers in this session have been podcasted in full and can be accessed here. The Ministerial Review was published in October and is briefly introduced by Andrew Brown of Drugscope, who participated in the review process. The review rejects an analogue response to the policy problem presented by new psychoactive substances, advises keeping a cautionary eye on policy developments in New Zealand, and focuses, in the UK, on changing legislative powers to enforce the message that supply of these substances will be treated increasingly severely. It appears to suggest that headshops will be targeted and more substances will be pre-emptively banned.

Participants in the roundtable discussion included: Professor Harry Sumnall (Liverpool John Moores University); Dean Acreman (WEDINOS project); Pete Burkinshaw (Public Health England); Beverley Francis (Scottish Government); Nicola Singleton (freelance analyst and researcher); Rick Bradley (KCA drug and alcohol charity); DI Ian Goldsborough (London metropolitan police).

The roundtable discussion itself, and the contributions added by the audience (not podcasted), revolved around the following issues:

  • The lack of expertise/evidence on which to base decisions made at every level.
  • Similarities (still dealing with potentially harmful substances) and differences (more various and fluid) between the ‘new drug’ phenomenon and traditionally controlled illicit drugs.
  • The overall importance with which the phenomenon is being treated and whether, considering limited estimations of levels of use, this is warranted.
  • The importance of work done by projects like WEDINOS, which aim to provide a testing service, with a direct link to information that can be accessed by users, for new drugs emerging on the market.
  • The conceptualisation of the advent of new drugs as an opportunity to re-examine our existing drug laws and to experiment with a different range of responses.
  • The importance of headshops in supporting the market for new drugs given that research shows that only 10% of users are accessing their substances via headshops.
  • The uncertainty of the review itself given the upcoming elections and the lack of publicity inspired by the publication of the review.


Session 2: Pushing the boundaries of our understandings of new drugs

The speakers in this session have been podcasted in full and can be accessed here. The underlying aim of the session was to move away from the focus on new psychoactive substances and recreational use by exploring research in progress that encompassed other types of new drugs, and other types of new drug users.

  • Rosa Goenraadt from the University of Utrecht explored the demand for and online supply of illicit pharmaceuticals. Similarities were drawn with NPS demand and supply, but the decreased attention given to illicit pharmaceuticals (as opposed to those substances which mimic illicit drugs like cannabis and cocaine) was emphasised.
  • Katinka van de Ven from the University of Kent drew attention to the expansion of the anti-doping movement and the increasingly law enforcement oriented approach to controlling performance and image enhancing drugs. Parallels between the zero tolerance approach applied here and with respect to both NPS and traditional illicit drugs were drawn.
  • Liviu Alexandrescu from the University of Lancaster documented the migration from heroin to NPS amongst injecting drug users in Romania. He emphasised the increased harms this brought to users because, for example, they had to inject NPS a lot more frequently than heroin.
  • Rebecca Crook from Liverpool John Moores University presented an exploratory paper outlining the need to recognise the pleasures of consuming NPS alongside the potential harms focused on in official discourses. Her preliminary research attested to the existence of NPS users who displayed ‘psychonaut’ (the desire to experiment and explore new substances) tendencies in their use.


Session 3: Breakout sessions on the impact of the ministerial review and future research priorities

For this session, the seminar divided into two groups based loosely around either ‘law enforcement’ or ‘public health’ perspectives. The groups participated in guided discussions that considered: (i) the perspective specific impacts of the ministerial review into NPS and, (ii) the perspective specific research priorities in this area. These sessions were not podcasted in order to maximise participation and the results of discussions are therefore discussed more fully here.


Impacts of the Ministerial Review

Enforcement perspective:

  • The ministerial review firmly places the emphasis on deploying law enforcement strategies to control the rise of new psychoactive substances. Specifically it extends current powers and legislation.
  • The use of trading standards legislation is used as a way of sidestepping the debate over whether a public health or law enforcement approach is more important but, ultimately, this is an issue that needs to be resolved in an effort to decide whether enforcing bans or encouraging the safety of users should be prioritised.
  • There is a noticeable lack of input from the general public on the importance they assign to the control of NPS.
  • It is not clear how evidence would be used to assist in the development of NPS policy, if it were to become readily available.

Public health perspective:

  • Public health issues are given space in the review, but it is not clear how initiatives in this area will be resourced.
  • The knee-jerk banning of large number of substances could be counter-productive to the safety of users by encouraging the development of other potentially more harmful substances.
  • A move away from very focused substance specific interventions for young people should be seen as a positive.
  • There are considerable difficulties in building an appropriate evidence base in relation to what is such a rapidly changing market.


Priorities for future research

Enforcement perspective:

  • Before we can develop an appropriate policy response to the issue presented by NPS, we need to develop a deeper understanding of: (i) the prevalence of NPS use, and (ii) the motivations of NPS users.
  • We need to explore the potential links between NPS use and anti-social behaviour, particularly in relation to headshops and violence/injury in the night time economy.
  • Research initiatives should be directed at encouraging and enabling the sharing of instances of best practice in responding to NPS at the local level. For example, the use of civil hearings by trading standards in some jurisdictions, frontline local policing techniques, and isolated attempts to control NPS through invoking labelling contraventions.
  • It would be useful to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of existing policies Vs proposed policies in terms of: (i) users, (ii) society, and (iii) suppliers.
  • Research should focus on the rise of NPS use in prisons.
  • The drivers of NPS supply should be explored and any links to organised crime should be investigated.

Public health perspective:

  • In an attempt to overcome the problems presented by an ever changing market, research could try to focus on a relatively stable market such as that of synthetic cannabinoids.
  • Site specific drug testing should be developed in order to support an evidence based policy in this area. Current research is obscured by the differences in what people think they are taking and what they are actually taking. A wider tolerance of substance testing in general would help to overcome this. Additionally, any increased focus on testing must also include strategies to disseminate the results of testing services such as WEDINOS into policy development in general, and the provision of appropriate treatment in particular.
  • Rather than treating NPS as a catch-all research term, there should be more research amongst specific subpopulations of NPS users such as the prison population and/or clubbers.
  • More research is needed on Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs (PIEDs).
  • Research is needed to determine whether traditional referrals to treatment services are appropriate for NPS users. In particular, collaborative approaches that aim to reach the hidden population of NPS users need to be explored.

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