Controlling new drugs under marketing regulations


  • Brendan Hughes,

    Corresponding author
    1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), Cais do Sodré, Lisbon, Portugal
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  • Adam R. Winstock

    1. South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, Addictions CAG, London, UK and National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW, Randwick, Sydney, NSW, Australia
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Brendan Hughes, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Cais do Sodré, 1249–289 Lisbon, Portugal. E-mail:


Aims  The rapid emergence of myriad substances openly marketed as ‘legal highs’ is straining traditional drug control systems which require time and basic scientific data on harms to react, presenting governments with the dilemma of no response or a disproportionate response. Some countries have side-stepped this using novel policy and legislative approaches. Should other countries consider them?

Methods  We review the different laws invoked to stop the open sale of new psychoactive substances, focusing on the European Union (EU).

Results  Some countries have designed new catch-all control systems, or faster systems to classify substances as drugs. Others have enforced consumer safety or medicines legislation to stop the open sale of these products. The latter originate from harmonization of the internal market of the EU. Rigorous, objective evaluation is required, but first results suggest that these have been effective, while avoiding criminalization of users.

Conclusions  Every EU country should have existing laws for protecting public health that can be applied swiftly yet proportionately to new drugs appearing on the open market with minimum political involvement. It seems the key is the speed, not the weight, of response. Given support for their enforcement mechanisms, these systems might be as effective and more efficient than the old ones.