The emergence of "chem-sex" parties where gay men inject synthetic illicit drugs before engaging in "risky sexual practices" in London and other European cities has triggered a public health warning from European drug experts.
The EU's drug agency is particularly concerned about people injecting the cathinones family of synthetic chemicals, which imitate the effects of speed and ecstasy, and injecting crystal meth and other forms of methamphetamine stimulants.
Synthetic cathinones include mephedrone, which has recently been banned in Britain and across Europe after being marketed as a legal high such as "meow, meow", and are usually snorted in powder form or swallowed as tablets.
But the annual report of the EU's monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction says there are now worrying localised instances of people injecting the substances, including at gay chem-sex parties in Britain.
"To date, this new practice, associated with risky sexual practices, has been reported in some large cities. Given the potential impact of the emerging patterns of cathinone injection identified, close monitoring of the issue is a public health priority," the experts say.
They cite chem-sex as an example of how Europe's drug problem is becoming increasingly complex, creating new challenges and fresh concerns for public health.
The Lisbon-based drugs agency says the overall situation in Europe remains stable, with some signs of declining use of more established drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. But they say this is balanced by the new threats posed by synthetic drugs, including stimulants, new psychoactive substances or legal highs, and abuse of medicinal products.
They say the emergence of new drugs shows no sign of abating; they were notified of 81 new substances in 2013, bringing the total number of substances monitored by the agency to more than 350.
The experts say the EU's early warning system "is coming under increasing pressure from the volume and variety of new drugs appearing on the market. Almost 250 substances were detected in the last four years.".
The agency's director, Wolfgang Gotz, said the early warning system was set up 15 years ago and was now globally respected: "I am deeply concerned, however, that this mechanism is under increasing strain and may be at risk if inadequately resourced."
The largest group – 29 – of the new drugs detected last year were synthetics imitating the effects of cannabis, known as cannabinoids. They are often marketed online as legal highs or "research chemicals". While there are some clandestine laboratories across Europe, most are sourced legally as powders from China or India and sold through more than 650 websites offering them to European customers.
The report says that in some EU countries these substances are now targeting the main sectors of the drug market.
In April the agency started a full assessment of four potent and harmful groups of chemicals, including 251-NBOMe, AH-7921, MDPV and methoxetamine, which are being sold as replacements for, respectively, LSD, morphine, cocaine and ketamine. They are likely to be among the first to face an EU-wide ban.
Even small quantities of these drugs can produce a large number of individual doses and they are regarded as potentially more harmful than the traditional drugs they seek to replace.
Nevertheless cannabis remains the most popular illicit drug, with an estimated 14.6 million Europeans aged 15 to 34 reporting that they had used it in the last year. The European market is dominated by herbal cannabis, much of it grown in domestic cannabis plantations or factories, with 7m plants seized in 2012. Herbal cannabis seizures have overtaken those of Moroccan cannabis resin or hashish and are now running at twice their volume.
Declining levels of cannabis consumption in Britain now means the UK is more than halfway down the EU league table, with 10.5% of young adults reporting that they had used it in the past year – just below the EU average of 11.2%.
Britain remains near the top of the European cocaine league – a position it has held for more than seven years – with 3.3% of young adults saying they used it in the last year. This rate has declined in recent years but remains the second highest across Europe, behind Spain, and is double the EU average of 1.7%.
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Tuesday 27 May 2014 05.07*EDT
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