New Psychoactive Substances is the collective name for a group of new drugs. They are often referred to as ‘legal highs’ or ‘research chemicals’. Terms such as ‘designer drugs’, ‘smart drugs’, ‘herbal highs’ and ‘bath salts’ also crop up from time to time.
These are a range of psychoactive substances that imitate or approximate the effects of known illegal drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis. They are usually synthetic (powders, pills and liquids), but can also be plant-based.
How new are these substances?
In the term “new psychoactive substances,” “new” refers not so much to “newly discovered” as to “only recently used as drugs. Some substances have a truly “new” composition and were only invented a few months ago. Others already have a long history in other contexts (e.g. ketamine which has been used in the medical field for many years). Many NPS remain obscure and are barely used. But some substances such as mephedrone, 3-MMC, ketamine, 4-FA, 2-CB, … did experience a certain popularity in the past years.
Since 2008 we have seen a huge increase in the number of NPS on the drug market. At the moment more than 850 NPS have been identified in Europe, in addition to the already existing 250 classical drugs that are prohibited by the UN Conventions.To keep an overview of all these different types of drugs, they are divided into 7 categories of the drug wheel: the stimulants, the empathogens, the hallucinogens, the dissociatives, the cannabinoids, the narcotics and the opioids. The outer ring contains substances that are illegal or require a prescription. The inner ring contains substances that are legal. Finally, an effects wheel was also developed that lists the most common effects for each category.
Are NPS more dangerous than traditional drugs?
Because most NPS have not been used as intoxicants for very long, there is little scientific research into the potential risks. Those who use them are playing the role of guinea pig. In order to estimate the risks of NPS as accurately as possible, we distinguish between short-term risks and long-term risks.
Many NPS are powerful tools. Therefore it is crucial to dose them correctly by using a scale or other attributes such as a syringe for liquids like GHB/GBL. Guidelines for dosing can be found on the Tripsit website. If you are using a new substance for the first time dose extra carefully and start with a low dose. You can always take more. Reducing it is not. Also respect the time frames for taking extra. Some new drugs like 6-APB take a long time (up to 90min) to come down and the effects last a long time. The time it takes for the drug to come on is referred to on Tripsit as ‘Onset’. Be patient to avoid overdosing.
Combining various substances is common but carries additional risks. Especially if you combine substances of the same kind (e.g. narcotic + narcotic) the risk of overdose increases rapidly. If you combine, be sure to inform yourself about the combination beforehand and dose extra carefully.
Just as with classic drugs, NPS do not always contain the active substance mentioned on the package. Even the contents of two identical packages can differ. Sometimes packages are also mislabeled. Users therefore cannot estimate which and how much active ingredient they are ingesting and what the effects will be. Always be extra careful when using for the first time from a new package or batch.
Very little is still known about the toxicity of NPS. This ensures that we do not know what impact the long-term use of these substances has on, for example, your memory, your heart and blood vessels, your teeth, your mood, etc. For most substances this is probably in line with similar classical drugs, but some NPS are more toxic and therefore more dangerous. For example, we know that the group of synthetic cannabinoids are many times more dangerous than natural cannabis. But the reverse is also possible. There are some MDMA (xtc) analogues that have a less toxic profile than MDMA.
Some NPS are more compulsive than others. In general, cathinones (e.g., Mephedrone, 3-MMC, alpha PVP, etc.) are substances that people want to take repeatedly. This creates additional risks of overdose and in the long run you increase the risk of becoming addicted to them. To use these substances more wisely it is best to build in a number of self-control mechanisms. E.g. Only use occasionally, in the right context with people you trust. Use a certain amount and no more. Don’t take too much to a party. Use only on days when you are well rested and feel good, etc….
Are NPS legal in Belgium?
Many NPS are chemically similar to conventional drugs, but different enough in structure to fall outside of traditional drug laws. Hence the term ‘legal highs’. This has changed since September 2017 when the generic legislation came into force in Belgium. This legislation prohibits not the individual substances, but the basic chemical structures of various NPS groups. This means that all derivatives of amphetamine (e.g. 2-FMA), cathinones (e.g. 3-MMC) etc, are immediately all prohibited. Indeed, many NPS are variants of certain basic chemical structures. As a result, all new psychoactive variants on this structure will be illegal a priori, and this also means that many NPSs are already under the control of Belgian law, even before they reach the market. There are some exceptions to this, but in general you can assume that the possession of virtually all NPSs in Belgium is punishable by law. This is despite the legal status of a substance in another country. It could perfectly be that a certain substance (e.g. 6-APB) is legal in the Netherlands. And that you can buy it through a Dutch online webshop and have it delivered by mail. From the moment this substance is in your possession in Belgium, you are punishable.