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Number of new 'legal highs' rises

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A record number of new "legal highs" were reported across Europe in 2010, the body that monitors drugs use across the continent says.


The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says new drugs are coming on to the market at an "unprecedented pace".


Of the 41 new substances, 16 were first reported in the UK - four times more than any other country.


It is feared these untested drugs pose a serious health risk.


This is the largest number of new substances ever reported across Europe in a single year - the figure was 24 in 2009 and 13 in 2008.


The list includes synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones and synthetic derivatives of well-established drugs. Their names include MDAI, iso-ethcathinone, 4-MBC and DMAA.


A further 15 derivatives of the compound on which banned drug mephedrone is based, cathinone, were detected during the year, and two from ketamine.


Experts say the drugs are developed by people who examine scientific literature about drug compounds.


If these are banned they develop a legal variant which then gets manufactured, often in China, and then sold in the UK as drugs.


Not all of these drugs are banned under UK law.


The UK government is introducing legislation to temporarily ban new "legal highs" until they are proven to be medically safe by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).


Dr John Ramsey, head of drugs database unit TicTac Communications at St George's University of London, said the drugs presented a major public health risk.


"The core of the problem is that none of these drugs have been properly tested to see how toxic they are to humans. If they will cause long-term health problems such as cancer or birth defects, would we know about that?"


He said he feared the government's plan for deferred legislation would not work, as the ACMD would not have the resources to do risk assessments for the number of substances which were emerging each year.


"What we have got to do is stop kids from buying them. Would you buy a research compound from an iffy website for £30 and take it? Quite how we change this I don't know, but there is always going to be something new on the market."


The European monitoring centre's director, Wolfgang Gotz, said that "given the speed at which new developments occur in this area" it was important to anticipate emerging threats.


He said: "This could be addressed by actively purchasing, synthesising and studying new compounds and by improving our capacity for investigative forensic analysis and research at European level."

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