Draft rules to ensure that harmful psychoactive substances, known as "legal highs", are withdrawn rapidly from the EU market were approved by Parliament on Thursday. MEPs sought to protect the health and safety of young people from these drugs, whilst ensuring that trade in lower risk substances for industrial and commercial uses is not hindered. Criminals who breach the ban on the most harmful substances could face up to ten years in jail.
These rules aim to halt the rapid spread in recreational use of new psychoactive substances that imitate the effects of illicit drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine. These so-called "legal highs" are especially popular with young people. A 2011 Eurobarometer survey found that 5% of EU 15-24 years olds had used such substances at least once, with a peak of 16% in Ireland, and close to 10% in Poland, Latvia and the UK.
An EU-wide ban within 10 months
The time taken to assess and ban harmful substances from the EU market would be cut from the current two years to 10 months. In the event of an immediate risk, a temporary one-year ban could be introduced within weeks. This temporary ban would ensure that a substance is no longer available to recreational users whilst the EU Drugs Agency does a full risk assessment. Under current rules, no temporary ban is possible and the European Commission must await a full risk assessment report before proposing to restrict a substance.
Severe, moderate and low risk substances
Substances posing an EU-wide severe risk (those that are life-threatening and can lead to the spread of serious diseases) would be subject to permanent sales restrictions to protect users and commercial markets. Their use would be authorised only for specified purposes or for scientific research and development (some of these substances have useful legitimate uses, e.g. in the production of medicines and in the chemical or high-tech industries).
Like illicit drugs, severe-risk substances would be subject to criminal law. Offences involving them committed by criminal organisations would be punishable by at least ten years’ imprisonment. These criminal law rules are “aimed solely at producers, suppliers and distributors rather than individual consumers”, MEPs stress, “without prejudice to the right of member states to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use at national level”.
Substances posing a moderate risk at EU level would be banned from the consumer market, but could be traded for commercial and industrial purposes. However, if any of these substances poses greater risks in a given member state than elsewhere, the member state "may maintain or introduce more stringent measures to ensure a high level of protection of public health", say MEPs. No restrictions would be imposed at EU level on new psychoactive substances posing low risks.
New substance risks will be assessed by the EU Drug Agency. The EU-level restrictions, temporary and permanent, will be adopted by the European Commission.
The European Parliament voted on its first reading of the draft legislation, in order to consolidate the work done so far and hand it over to the next Parliament. This ensures that the MEPs newly elected in May can build on work done during the current term.
Result of the vote on new psychoactive substances (Protasiewicz report): 507 votes in favour, 37 against and 33 abstentions
Result of the vote on penalties (Jiménez-Becerril report): 504 votes in favour, 36 against and 36 abstentions
Procedure: Co-decision, first reading