Draft rules to ensure that harmful psychoactive substances, known as "legal highs", are withdrawn rapidly from the EU market were approved by Parliament on Thursday.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 use 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 the EU’s 15-24 year 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.
The time taken to assess and ban harmful substances from the EU market would be cut from the current two years to ten 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.
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 stressed, “without prejudice to the right of member states to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use at national level”.
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.
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