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Legal highs from Asia are increasingly harder to police in Europe, says drugs report

Last year the EU drugs monitoring agency identified 73 new synthetic substances classed as 'psychoactive drugs'

The booming industry in 'legal highs' shipped to Europe from India and China is challenging traditional methods of policing the drugs market as the substances are being sold openly and often legally in shops and on the Internet, an EU drugs report released yesterday said.

Last year the EU drugs monitoring agency identified 73 new synthetic substances classed as “psychoactive drugs”, up from 49 such substances discovered in 2011. Of the substances found in 2012, 30 were classed as “cannabinoids” which mimic the effects of marijuana.

The EU agency currently monitors 280 such substances. In the past, these synthetic drugs were produced in underground labs made from illegally-traded substances. Now, however, they are made overseas and sold on the internet, making them more difficult to track and tackle.

“The problem is that they are not considered in most of the national legislation, so they manage to escape the controls which are in place,” Ana Gallegos, an analyst with the monitoring centre, told The Independent. “When a new drug is controlled under national legislation, producers come up with a slightly different chemical structure.”

Law enforcement and other government agencies instead focus on the health risks the substances may pose, and determine whether organised crime gangs were involved in the supply chain.

“The report shows that organised crime is involved in the production of new drugs, a rapidly developing and expanding market with low risks and high profits,” said Rob Wainwright, director of the European crime agency Europol.

The EU drugs report noted an overall decline in heroin and cocaine use. But it warned that the financial crisis in Europe could also reverse that trend, with a high number of unemployed youths potentially seeking solace in drugs. Cuts to health sectors imposed as part of sweeping austerity programmes could also impact treatment and prevention programmes.