According to the European Union's (EU) annual report on drug use patterns, new synthetic drugs are being reported at a rate of one per week, and there have never been more online shops selling "legal highs."
The report, released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), states that over 50 new synthetic drugs have been detected in the EU so far in 2012, up from just 24 new synthetic substances in 2009. These include substances that reportedly echo the effects of other drugs, including Spice, a mix of herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that mimics marijuana.
Additionally, the EMCDDA tracked a record number of online shops used to sell legal drugs, including psychedelic mushrooms, salvia, and ketamine (a sedative used in veterinary medicine). The agency identified 693 of these online shops in January 2012, compared to 314 in January 2011 and 170 in January 2010.
Some synthetic products marketed as "legal highs" on these websites actually contain controlled substances, the report adds.
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According to the EMCDDA, it is not clear how far organized crime is involved in this emerging market. However, the trends reported by the EMCDDA have been echoed elsewhere: use of cocaine is falling and the availability of new, synthetic drugs continues to rise. Cocaine remains the most widely used illicit drug in Europe, but the EMCDDA report states that the trend may be in decline and that cocaine "may be losing its image as a high status drug." This could impact Latin America's drug cartels, who have benefited greatly from expanding into the European market over the past two decades.
There are other signs that demand for synthetic drugs is growing, including in Colombia, where party powder 2C-B is now reportedly the drug of choice for the nation's elite. Meanwhile, the 2012 United Nations World Drug Report singled out increased production of synthetic drugs as a problem worth monitoring.
And as the EMCDDA report points out, the online opportunities for drug distribution are likely to continue to increase. Drug-selling website Silk Road makes $22 million in annual sales, according to Forbes.