Mr. Troy Wickham, Deputy Manager, National Council on Substance Abuse
(Bridgetown – Barbados) – The abuse of illegal and over-the-counter drugs is on the increase throughout the world. Organizations like the National Council on Substance Abuse (NCSA), are fighting what appears to be a losing battle but we cannot give up and walk away. Many individuals engage in substance use to experience the feel-good hormone ‘Dopamine’; and in so doing, they often seek new ways of getting high or new ways of using traditional substances. This has resulted in increasing numbers of persons consuming New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) worldwide.
What are New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)?
NPS are drugs that are not controlled by the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these Conventions. They include: a range of drugs that may mimic legal and illegal drugs, drugs that are new to the market, or drugs that are newly misused. Common street names include “legal highs”, “bath salts” and “research chemicals”.
As NPS are not covered by the Conventions, they fall outside of current drug control laws and are therefore legal. Nevertheless, they have been on the radar of European and North American Public Health and Law Enforcement Officials for decades.
The speed at which NPS appear on the market and can be distributed makes monitoring difficult and current laws slow to respond. Drug producers are constantly tweaking their composition in an effort to stay ahead of the law. Therefore, as soon as an NPS is detected and laws are adjusted to include the substance, the drug producer makes a minor alteration to its ingredients in order to retain the legal status of their product – and a new NPS is born. As a result, a large number of NPS have been detected throughout the world over the years. In fact, in December 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that they had more than 950 such substances on record.
The broad category of NPS is divided into a number of sub-groups based on the effects of the drugs and their contents.
There are six main NPS substance groups available. They are:
- Synthetic cannabinoids
- Synthetic cathinones,
- Plant-based substances,
In addition, there is a seventh group of miscellaneous substances that contain recently identified NPS which do not fit into the aforementioned groups.
The effects of NPS vary greatly from drug to drug and, compared to more traditional drugs, there is relatively little information available on them. However, there is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate the potential short- and long-term harms associated with their use. For example, research has shown that synthetic cannabis can have more serious side effects than conventional cannabis. There is also documented data regarding hospitalizations and deaths linked to NPS.
In general, the side effects of NPS range from seizures to agitation, aggression, acute psychosis as well as the potential for the development of dependence. NPS users have frequently been hospitalized with severe intoxications. Safety data on the toxicity and carcinogenic potential of many NPS are not yet available or are very limited.
Similarly, the purity and composition of products containing NPS are often not known, and this increases their risk to users. NPS also do not come with a recommended dosage printed on the label which mean that they are unregulated and untested. This harsh reality can result in a user receiving a different product from batch to batch although packaging and labelling maybe the same.
NPS in Barbados
We do not have any data to suggest the presence of NPS in Barbados at this time. However, there are anecdotal reports of synthetic cannabis being used on the island suggesting that they may be emerging on the local drug scene.
In the absence of statistical evidence, we can learn from the experiences of our neighbours to the North. The United States of America and Canada are presently experiencing serious NPS and opioid epidemics, resulting in some of the highest overdose rates in the history of drug use. The associated costs are high, both in terms of lives lost and the long-term economic impact. Signs indicate that the use of NPS is likely to continue to spread and this is of concern to us here in Barbados, as we typically follow the trends emerging from North America.
In an effort to raise the public’s awareness about NPS and non-traditional drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, the NCSA is carrying out a public education campaign. This campaign forms part of the Drug Awareness Month celebrations during the period January 1 to 31, 2021 and includes a series of webinars as well as drug facts and tips broadcast using traditional and social media.