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European definition versus I-TREND definition | Methodology and Results | National technical folders

European definition versus I-TREND definition

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"Workstream 5" aimed to identify and document the most popular substances. Thus, there was a need to establish a working definition of NPS since current definitions are based on legal texts which encompass many types of substances. Emphasis was notably placed on the fact that NPS mimic the effects of traditional drugs, and that the Internet is an important factor influencing the NPS market.

NPS are popularly referred to as 'legal highs' or 'designer drugs'. They are commonly sold as "research chemicals" (RC) or under a diverse range of fanciful marketing names (e.g. NRG-3, Benzofury, Funky, Cocolino etc.). In order to circumvent the law, retailers sell NPS under a disguise of misleading purposes such as "bath salts", "incense", or "goods not intended for human consumption (collector goods)". Such labels allow retailers to market NPS to a wide audience, without directly referring to them as substances for recreational consumption.

NPS imitate the effects of existing illegal drugs such as cocaine, (meth)amphetamines, ecstasy, cannabis, ketamine or even opium. Most NPS can be purchased online, but they can also be sold in head shops and smart shops or on the street within traditional drug markets. They come in all possible forms, such as powder, pills, capsules, herb and resin. Despite their plant-based form, they are not actually vegetal products, because synthetic substances have been vaporised on them.

The legality of NPS can give users the false impression that such substances are safe and authorized by the law. Moreover, it is somewhat a myth that all 'legal highs' are in fact legal, as many are forbidden by national legislation even before their production. Some NPS may also be found to contain additional illegal substances. There is a relatively lack of research on these substances compared to traditional drugs.

The European definition of NPS
The European Council Decision 2005/387/JHA defines new psychoactive substances as any new narcotic drugs or psychotropic drugs in pure form or in preparation that are not controlled by the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (amended in 1972) or the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to the substances listed in these conventions. While the European Council decision focuses on new emerging substances, or "novel" substances, synthetic, natural or medicinal products created decades ago can also be grouped as NPS given evidence of new recreational use and misuse.

In 2013, the EMCDDA created six new categories of NPS to account for the increasing diversity of substances being grouped as new psychoactive substances. The NPS classification system now contains a total of 13 categories: Phenethylamines, tryptamines, piperazines, cathinones, synthetic cannabinoids, opioids, arylcyclohexylamines (eg. Methoxetamine), aminoindanes, arylalkylamines (eg. 6-APB), benzodiazepines, piperidines and pyrrolidines, plants and extracts of plants and others.

To date, few NPS have been recommended for control by the Council of the European Union. However, Member States have introduced their own legislation, leading to an array of policy responses. This, in turn, complicates the law, given that a substance can be controlled at a national level in one EU country, but not in another, and vice versa. Moreover, a substance can also be controlled at a national and/or international level prior to its production or evidence of use.

I-TREND and a working definition of NPS
Given the European Council’s 2005 Decision, the I-TREND project defined NPS as any "new or novel psychoactive substances". This broad and dynamic definition can be adapted to each participating country’s cultural context - without losing the comparative nature of research findings. However, it is worth emphasizing that the I-TREND project ultimately identified a subset of products of interest that were categorised as "new synthetic substances".

The European Council’s definition of NPS is based on a legal perspective and covers a wide variety of substances that embrace a plethora of diverse consumers. However, in the context of the I-TREND project, the broad nature of this definition was not practical for focalized research.

For example, the European Council classifies medicinal products that are used for recreational purposes, such as Tramadol, Quietapine, Dextrometorphan, as NPS (European Council Decision 2005/387/JHA. However, these substances were not covered in I-TREND given that their monitoring requires tools typical of traditional information systems rather than the methodology developed for the Internet. Moreover, the misuse of these products reflects practices and life trajectories that are largely independent from the consumption of new synthetic drugs.

Moreover, a similar classification issue exists for some natural and vegetal products. While I-TREND acknowledges that vegetal/natural products can be NPS, they were not ultimately included in the project. At the outset of the project, some partners wished to include both synthetic and natural products, given that research shows that natural substances are among the most commonly retailed NPS available on the Internet (i.e. Salvia Divinorum, hallucinogenic mushrooms, kratom and peyote) (EMCDDA). It is especially important to take natural products into consideration, because vegetal products are used by webshops as leader products, before the supply of chemical products, in some national contexts. This is a technique that is used to draw the attention of young consumers. However, despite their plant-based form, they are not actually vegetal products, because synthetic substances have been vaporised on them.

It is also important to note that the term 'new' might be misleading as many of these substances are not new in terms of their existence and have been around for many years. What is 'novel' about some of these substances is not their actual existence, but the pattern of their use (i.e. newly ‘consumed’ substances).

To some extent, employing a definition based on legislative texts may be restrictive as it suggests that once a substance has been controlled, it is no longer an NPS. Such a legal definition creates a situation where a substance may initially be seen as an NPS due to the lack of legislation controlling its production, sale and use, but that may be excluded from the list of NPS contingent on a change of its legal status. Thus, the unique history of a substance is important and may provide justification for a substance’s continued classification as an NPS.

The I-TREND Project identified the following characteristics as key elements defining NPS:

Examples of NPS appearing in project partner countries:

Examples of substances that have been excluded:

Methodology and Results

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Read the final WS5 report for further details: Workstream 5. NPS Top lists and national technical folders, Final report, 27 p. and see all 29 national NPS Top lists just below.
You can consult a practical application of the methodology for selecting the most popular NPS and on how to set up a NPS Top List by downloading the French case illustration
You can also consult one example of international technical folder on 5-MeO-DALT.

National technical folders

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This workstream included the creation of technical folders on the most popular NPS in 2014 and 2015, mostly at national level, based on the literature and data collected in the context of the other I-TREND activities.

The information and views set out in those documents are obtained from a qualitative analysis of consumers ‘testimonies on drug forums and do not reflect clinical assessment of the safety or the toxicity of the cited psychoactive products.
Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf, also as the scientific team responsible of this work, may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.
The reported experiences emanate from consumers who have probably high tolerance. Consequently those dosages and mixtures described herein may be toxic or fatal regarding the individual variability.


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