A selection of synthetic drugs / Getty Images


More than twice as many Britons die from a drugs overdose compared to the rest of Europe according to new research.

The EU drugs agency also revealed that the number of legal highs available across the continent is soaring with 651 websites selling 350 substances. It warned that the rise in designer drugs to buy online has increased availability to dealers and consumers.

The UK’s average mortality rate due to overdose was 38.3 per million population - more than twice the average for the rest of the continent at 17 per million, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said in its latest annual report.

A total of 81 new psychoactive substances, also known as legal highs or designer drugs, were reported for the first time in 2013 up from 73 the previous year. More than a third of these were synthetic cannabinoids, substances designed to recreate the effects of cannabis. Another 30 compounds did not fit into any recognised group, the European Drug Report 2014 said.

Such substances are not controlled under international law and are often mislabelled as plant food or research chemicals. Legal highs are often manufactured in China or India but there are secret laboratories producing the substances in Europe, the agency said.

Last year the Home Office launched a review of legal highs to look at how UK drug laws can be improved. It is set to publish its report soon. Options include the expansion of legislation to ensure police and law enforcement agencies have better tailored powers.

The Government banned two groups of psychoactive substances in December- NBOMe and Benzofuran compounds - as Class A and B drugs respectively.

The strength of designer drugs is causing difficulties for law enforcement agencies as well, as small quantities of the substances can be converted into multiple doses.

The annual report said: “The technology to access these sites is increasingly being incorporated into consumer software, opening up these marketplaces to more people. In addition the open sale of ‘legal highs’ on the Internet appears to have increased their availability to distributors and consumers.”

Europe’s Early Warning System, a detection mechanism described as the “first line of defence against emerging drugs” is struggling to cope with the rate at which new synthetic drugs are emerging. Fears have also been raised that deaths where designer drugs are a contributory factor are escaping detection.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom said: “The EU Early Warning System, our first line of defence against emerging drugs, is coming under growing pressure as the number and diversity of substances continue to rise sharply.

“Europe’s law enforcement bodies are increasingly faced with the fact that small, easily transported packages of seemingly innocuous powders can obtain many thousands of individual doses.”

Crime Prevention minister Norman Baker said: “The Coalition Government is determined to clamp down on the reckless trade in what are somewhat inaccurately called ‘legal highs’, which have tragically claimed the lives of far too many young people in our country.

“Hundreds of substances previously sold as ‘legal highs’ are controlled drugs in the UK, mainly thanks to our generic legislation. We currently control more than 250 new psychoactive substances in the UK, including some of the 81 substances reported for the first time by the EMCDDA.”