"The reasons for the more pronounced psychoactive effects and severe and fatal poisoning seen with synthetic cannabinoids are not particularly well understood, but at least two factors are likely to be important: the high potency of the substances and the unintentionally high doses that users are exposed to.
"Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, are a group of drugs that mimic the effects of a substance found in cannabis called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is responsible for many of the psychoactive effects of cannabis which give that feeling of being ‘stoned’ or ‘high’ (Gaoni and Mechoulam, 1964; Huestis et al., 2001; Pertwee, 2005a; Pertwee, 2014). These effects are caused by activating a receptor in the brain called the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptor) (Huestis et al., 2001; Pertwee, 2014).
"Since 2012, a total of 28 new fentanils have been identified on Europe’s drug market. This includes eight substances that were reported for the first time in 2016 and 10 during 2017. During this period, there has also been a large increase in seizures reported by customs at international borders and police at street-level (Figure 4) (see also ‘Reducing the risk of occupational exposure to fentanils’, page 11). While the picture differs widely across Europe, 23 countries have reported detections of one or more of these substances (Figure 5) (2).
"Alongside their legitimate uses as medicines and in research, the fentanils also have a long history of illicit use as replacements for heroin and other controlled opioids. Between 1979 and 1988, more than 10 fentanils that had been made in illicit laboratories were detected on the drug market in the United States (Henderson, 1991). The first was alpha-methylfentanyl, followed by substances such as 3-methylfentanyl and 4-fluorofentanyl. Typically, they were sold as heroin or ‘synthetic heroin’.
"With a total of 38 different opioids reported, the number of synthetic opioids has grown rapidly in Europe since the first substance was reported in 2009. In fact, most of these substances have been reported for the first time during the past two years, with 9 reported in 2016 and 13 during 2017.
"Reflecting consumer demand, the market in new benzodiazepines appears to have grown over the past few years. The EMCDDA is currently monitoring 23 of these substances, including six that were reported for the first time in 2016 and three during 2017. While the overall number of seizures reported by law enforcement during 2016 decreased compared with 2015, the quantity reported increased. More than half a million tablets containing new benzodiazepines such as diclazepam, etizolam, flubromazolam, flunitrazolam and fonazepam were reported during 2016 — which was about 70 % more than in 2015.
"Reflecting their use as legal replacements for cocaine, amphetamine and other controlled stimulants, there were more than 23 000 seizures of synthetic cathinones reported from across Europe in 2016 (Figure 3). These account for almost one-third of the total number of seizures of new substances over the year, and amounted to almost 1.9 tonnes, making synthetic cathinones the most commonly seized new psychoactive substances by quantity in 2016. The EMCDDA is currently monitoring 130 of these substances, including 14 that were reported for the first time in 2016 and 12 during 2017.
"By the end of December 2017, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 670 new substances that have appeared on Europe’s drug market over the past 20 years. This total includes 51 substances that were reported for the first time during 2017 (Figure 1), namely 13 opioids, 12 cathinones, 10 cannabinoids, 4 phenethylamines, 3 benzodiazepines, 2 tryptamines, 1 arylcyclohexylamine, 1 arylalkylamine, 1 piperidine/pyrrolidine and 4 substances that do not belong to these other groups.
"Drug use often develops from being occasional to problematic: ties with close family members and non-using friends are gradually severed, while school and professional performance can be seriously affected and may come to a premature end. As a consequence, the normal process of socialisation, the integration of an individual from adolescence to adulthood as an independent, autonomous member of society, is jeopardised and this often leads to a gradual exclusion into the margins of society. However, this is a two-sided process.
"In terms of the historical development of this intervention, the first supervised drug consumption room was opened in Berne, Switzerland in June 1986. Further facilities of this type were established in subsequent years in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece and France. A total of 78 official drug consumption facilities currently operate in seven EMCDDA reporting countries, following the opening of the first two drug consumption facilities in the framework of a 6-year trial in France in 2016.