LISBON, Portugal – European Union authorities identified a record number of new synthetic substances known as "legal highs" last year, most of them manufactured in China and India and then sold over the Internet, the EU drug agency said Thursday.
The agency said in its annual report it detected 49 new psychoactive substances on the market in 2011 — up from 41 in 2010 and a record for the third straight year.
The term "legal high" refers to substances that reproduce the effects of illegal drugs. They are sold under various product labels, including "research chemicals," ''bath salts" and "plant food," and cover a wide range of synthetic and plant-derived substances, the agency said.
The number of online stores selling Europe's 10 most popular "legal highs" rose to 759 last year. That was just over double the number the previous year, the Lisbon, Portugal-based institution said.
Cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines remain the most-used stimulants on the continent but they face growing competition from synthetic alternatives.
Investigations by European law enforcement agencies have concluded most of the substances are synthesized in China and, to a lesser extent, India. The agency said "opportunistic entrepreneurs" are behind the Internet sales.
"These drugs appear to have the potential for more widespread diffusion," the report said.
The lengthy process of drafting new laws has placed authorities at a disadvantage in the fight against the synthetic substances.
"The speed with which these new substances are launched, combined with a lack of information on the risks associated with their use, challenges the established procedure of adding individual substances to the list of those controlled by drug laws," the report said.
Some EU countries, such as Austria, Ireland and Romania, have responded by enacting new laws that penalize the unauthorized distribution of psychoactive substances, the agency said.