New (and emerging) psychoactive substances

Key findings

  • The New (and emerging) Psychoactive Substance (NPS) market is highly dynamic with fluctuations in the types of NPS available.
  • NPS often mimic the effects of existing illicit substances.
  • In 2016, less than 1% of the general population reported using synthetic cannabis in the previous 12 months.
  • In 2016, only 0.3% of the Australian general population reported using other NPS such as ‘meow meow’ and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
  • People who use psychostimulant drugs such as ecstasy are more likely to use NPS than the general population.

More information is available in the New (and emerging) psychoactive substances factsheet.

New (and emerging) psychoactive substances (NPS) may be defined as substances, whether in a pure form or preparation, where most are not controlled by international drug control conventions but which may pose a public health threat (UNODC 2019). NPS often mimic the effects of existing illicit substances such as cannabis, ecstasy (MDMA) and hallucinogens, or have chemical structures very similar to those substances (AIHW 2017). There are several main types of NPS, including:

  • synthetic cannabinoids—designed to mimic or produce similar effects to cannabis. 
  • phenethylamines—a class of drugs with psychoactive and stimulant effects and includes amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy). NPS phenethylamines include the ‘2C series’, the NBOMe series, PMMA and benzodifurans.
  • tryptamines—psychoactive hallucinogens found in plants, fungi and animals.
  • piperazines—typically described as ‘failed pharmaceuticals’ and are frequently sold as ecstasy due to their central nervous system stimulant properties.
  • synthetic cathinones—have an amphetamine-type analogue including mephedrone (‘meow meow’) and methylone.
  • novel benzodiazepines—are less well categorised and understood than other NPS (NSW Ministry of Health 2017).

Other names given to this group of drugs include research chemicals, analogues, legal highs, herbal highs, bath salts, novel psychoactive substances and synthetic drugs (NDARC 2016).

Availability

There is evidence that NPS are now available in over 100 countries around the world.

In Australia, the NPS market is highly dynamic with fluctuations in the types of NPS available (Burns et al. 2014). The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC 2018) recently reported:

  • A 58.0% decrease in the number of NPS border seizures selected for further analysis, from 433 in 2015–16 to 182 in 2016–17.
  • A 56.5% decrease in the weight of analysed NPS border seizures, from 204.7 kilograms in 2015–16 to 89.0 kilograms in 2016–17.
  • Since 2008–09, cathinone-type substances have accounted for the highest proportion of the total number of analysed NPS seizures (44.5% in 2016–17).
  • By number, the second most commonly detected substance in 2016–17 was amphetamine-type substances (27.5%), followed by tryptamine-type substances (13.7%), other substances (12.6%) and synthetic cannabinoids (1.6%).
  • By weight, amphetamine-type substances accounted for 78.5% of the weight of analysed seizures in 2016–17, followed by tryptamine-type substances (12.5%), cathinone-type substances (8.1%), other substances (0.7%) and synthetic cannabinoids (0.1%) (ACIC 2018).

Consumption

Synthetic cannabinoids

The use of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia is low.

  • The NDSHS showed that in 2016 although lifetime use of the synthetic cannabis more than doubled among the general population between 2013 and 2016 (from 1.3% to 2.8%), recent use dropped dramatically from 1.2% to 0.3% (Figure NPS1).
  • Regular psychostimulant users interviewed as part of the EDRS reported infrequent use of synthetic cannabinoids in 2018, with 3% of the sample reporting use in the past six months (Peacock et al. 2018) (Table S2.56).
  • The low reported use of synthetic cannabinoids has been attributed to the fact that these synthetic cannabinoids do not produce the kinds of effects that people are seeking.
  • Similarly, the use of NPS among secondary school students is also uncommon. The Australian Secondary School Survey showed the majority of students (97%) reported they had never used synthetic cannabis or any new synthetic drug in the last 12 months (Guerin & White 2018) (Table S2.57).
  • The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program no longer monitors the 2 synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, as they had not been detected since monitoring commenced in August 2016. While methylone and mephedrone (synthetic stimulants) continue to be detected, consumption was mostly below levels at which it could be reliably quantified (ACIC 2019).

Other NPS

The use of other NPS among the Australian general population is similarly low (AIHW 2017).

  • The NDSHS showed that in 2016 lifetime use of other psychoactive substances such as ‘meow meow’ and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) increased from 2013 (from 0.4% to 1.0%) but recent use remained stable at about 0.3% in 2016 (Tables S2.31 and S2.32).
  • The consumption of NPS among regular psychostimulant users is disproportionately high; in 2018, 31% reported recent use of any NPS in the past six months (Table S2.56). However, NPS are used infrequently with most reporting use on a median of 1–2 days in the six months prior (Peacock et al. 2018).
Visualisation not available for printing

Harms

Due to the wide variety of NPS and their ever-changing purity and composition, information on the long-term adverse effects or risks are still largely unknown (UNODC 2015).

The use of NPS has been linked to health problems, including (but not limited to):

  • cardiovascular problems
  • memory and cognitive impairment
  • psychiatric problems
  • aggression and acute psychosis
  • breathing difficulties
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • nausea and persistent vomiting
  • abnormally fast heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • seizures
  • tolerance and dependence (ACIC 2018; NSW Ministry of Health 2017; UNODC 2015).

Policy context

The laws surrounding NPS are complex and vary between Australian jurisdictions.

  • To deal with the rapid growth of NPS, some Australian jurisdictions such as New South Wales (NSW) have implemented blanket bans on prohibiting or selling any substance that has a psychoactive effect (exempting alcohol, tobacco and food).
  • In other jurisdictions, such as Western Australia, specific NPS are banned with additional substances regularly added to the list.
  • Commonwealth legislation also bans any psychoactive substance not covered by legislation elsewhere (NDARC 2016).

References

ACIC (Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission) 2018. Illicit drug data report 2016–17. Canberra: ACIC. Viewed 21 September 2018.

ACIC 2019. National wastewater drug monitoring program, report 7. Canberra: ACIC. Viewed 18 June 2019.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2017. National drug strategy household survey 2016: detailed findings. Drug statistics series no. 31. Cat. no. PHE 214. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 14 December 2017.

Burns L, Roxburgh A, Matthews A, Bruno R, Lenton S & Buskirk JV 2014. The rise of new psychoactive substance use in Australia. Drug Testing and Analysis 6:846–849.

Guerin N & White V 2018. Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2017. Victoria: Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer.

NDARC (National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre) 2016. New (and emerging) psychoactive substances (NPS) factsheet. Viewed 21 December 2017.

NSW Ministry of Health 2017. A quick guide to drugs & alcohol, 3rd edn. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

Peacock A, Gibbs D, Karlsson A, Uporova J, Sutherland R, Bruno R et al. 2018. Australian Drug Trends 2018. Key findings from the National Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) Interviews. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

UNODC (United Nations Office on Drug and Crime) 2015. UNODC early warning advisory on new psychoactive substances. Viewed 21 December 2017.

UNODC 2019. World Drug Report 2019. Vienna: UNODC. Viewed 16 July 2019.