New Psychoactive Substances

The amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) market has long been characterized by a variety of substances. In recent years, a number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have rapidly emerged on this market. By November 2014, close to one hundred Member States and territories reported the emergence of NPS to UNODC. Many NPS share similar effects and profiles of substances under international control that they are designed to mimic. So far, 9 NPS substance groups have been identified. For instance, synthetic cannabinoids (e.g. JWH-018) are mimetics of THC (delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive substance of cannabis. Several NPS mimicking the effects of ATS belong to the synthetic cathinone group which have stimulant and empathogenic properties, and the phenethylamine group which includes substances that can induce stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.

Since 2009 until the writing of this report, over 500 NPS have been reported to UNODC worldwide. Data reported to the UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS (EWA) indicate that the NPS market is very dynamic and that a number of NPS may be transient. There are notable variations in the substance groups and the number of NPS encountered, as well as in the patterns of emergence and persistence of NPS.

As on the global level, the number of NPS reported in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, has increased significantly, from 34 substances in 2009 to 137 in 2014 (Nov). The largest increase in terms of newly reported NPS was observed between 2010 (52 NPS) and 2011 (91 NPS), with major increases within the synthetic cannabinoid group and the synthetic cathinone group. Indeed, in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, most reported NPS belong to the synthetic cannabinoid group (42 substances). However, synthetic cathinones account for a larger share of the total NPS reported in the region at 25 per cent, than on the global level where synthetic cathinones account for only a  15 per cent share of the total reported NPS. This may reflect the important role of ATS in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, the effects of which can be mimicked by synthetic cathinones.

What is the diversity of available NPS in the region?

Within East and South-East Asia and Oceania, countries reported a large diversity of NPS substance groups, as well as varied emergence patterns and persistence trends. On the whole, the largest number of NPS in the region between 2008 and 2014 was reported by Australia (73 substances), followed by New Zealand (49 substances), Singapore (37 substances), Japan (31 substances) and Indonesia (29 substances).

Aside from these countries, other countries in the region have also reported NPS, but of a much less diverse range. For instance, Cambodia, Macau (China), and Viet Nam have only  reported the emergence of ketamine. This could relate to the many technical challenges in identifying NPS faced by forensic laboratories in the region. To date, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) has not reported the emergence of NPS to UNODC.

The NPS market in the region is characterized by a large number of synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones and phenethylamines. While synthetic cathinones became established on the market as far back as 2009, with 34 substances reported by 2014 (Nov), synthetic cannabinoids only began to play a major role on the market from 2011 onwards. Indeed, the largest increase of NPS in the region has been observed within the synthetic cannabinoid group, rising from only 2 substances reported in 2009 to a total of 42 substances reported by 2014 (Nov).

Of the 137 NPS reported between 2008 and 2014 (Nov), 72 substances were reported in two or more years but 65 substances were reported only once, which suggests that a sizeable proportion of NPS may be transient and have not established a permanent presence on the drug market. Most of the substances that, according to country reports, are no longer available on the market belong to the synthetic cannabinoid and synthetic cathinone groups. Some stability has been observed in the cases of 33 NPS that have been reported of in at least 3 consecutive years. In the region, there appears to be an established presence of some NPS, of which 8 substances had been annually reported since 2009. These substances include BZP, DMA, JWH-018, ketamine, kratom, mephedrone, methylone and TFMPP. The substance that had been reported by the most number of countries/territories was ketamine (15 countries), followed by BZP (9 countries) and TFMPP (8 countries).

A large market for ketamine in East and South-East Asia and Oceania

As a substance that has a closely related chemical structure to the internationally controlled substance phencyclidine, listed in Schedule II of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, ketamine was synthesized as an anaesthetic and marketed as a medical alternative to phencyclidine in the early 1970s. Although it is a widely used anaesthetic in veterinary and human medicine, it is also used throughout the region for recreational purposes and non-medical use dates back to the 1980s and 1990s. Chronic ketamine use can induce several health issues including high blood pressure, abdominal pain, lower urinary tract symptoms, disorientation, impaired vision and confusion.

There are indications that non-medical use of ketamine is increasing in some countries. Although the annual prevalence of ketamine use in Hong Kong (China), declined from 0.05 per cent in 2012 to 0.04 per cent in 2013, prevalence rates remained at a higher level than for ATS use at 0.03 per cent. In 2013, ketamine users continued to account for almost 28 per cent of all drug users and between 2009 to 2013, ketamine was identified as the second most used drug, according to expert perception. In 2012 and 2013, experts perceived an increase in ketamine use in Brunei Darussalam, China and Macau (China). Among people held in prison in Macau (China), annual use of ketamine in 2013 stood at almost 27 per cent, signifying an increase from 18 per cent in 2012. An increasing number of ketamine-related treatment admissions have been registered since 2008, rising from 21 admissions that year to 158 admissions in 2013. The number of people treated for ketamine use in Singapore almost doubled to 29 people between 2011 and 2013, which is comparable to Thailand where the number of people treated for ketamine use rose  to 31 in 2013. Over the last few years, Australia and New Zealand reported stable ketamine use, at an annual prevalence rate of 0.21 per cent use in 2010 and 0.3 per cent use in 2007 among the general population respectively.

Over the last 6 years, ketamine seizures in the region have accounted for a large share of global total ketamine seized. Ketamine seizures increased significantly to almost 10 tons in 2013, which marks an 85 per cent increase from the amount seized in 2012. Ketamine continues to be the second most seized substance in China at nearly 9.7 tons, after ATS seizures at 18.4 tons. Hong Kong (China), has also reported a more than two-fold increase to about 0.3 tons in 2013 from the previous year. Ketamine seizure increases have also been reported in Australia where 199 seizure cases were detected in 2012/13, rising from 59 seizure cases in 2011/12. Ketamine seizures in other countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have been comparatively lower and the amounts seized in these countries have decreased over the last few years. There are indications that a large share of the amount of ketamine seized in the region was intended for the domestic market.
Between 2008 and 2013, illicit ketamine manufacture has been reported by several countries and territories in Asia, mostly China and India, as well as Taiwan, Province of China, and Hong Kong (China). A total of 122 ketamine laboratories were dismantled in China in 2013, compared to 81 laboratories in 2012. According to the Chinese authorities, large quantities of ketamine were manufactured in  Guangdong, China. Hong Kong (China), and India both reported clandestine ketamine manufacture, having each dismantled a clandestine ketamine laboratory in 2012.

Several countries in East and South East Asia seized ketamine that was perceived to have originated from within the region, namely from China and India. Between 2009 and 2013, Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong (China), Japan, and Indonesia reported seizures of ketamine perceived to have been trafficked from China and/or Malaysia. Over the same period, countries in Western Europe and North America seized ketamine that was reportedly trafficked from China. Ketamine seizures reported by Hong Kong(China) and Japan between 2008 and 2012 were perceived to have been trafficked from Taiwan Province of China. Some countries in the region, such as Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong (China) and Thailand seized ketamine between 2009 and 2013 that was perceived to have been intended for onward trafficking to Malaysia.

With regards to inter-regional ketamine trafficking, Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Taiwan Province of China and Thailand seized ketamine perceived to have originated from India. According to the Australian authorities, more than half of the ketamine seized in 2013 was perceived to have been trafficked from the United Kingdom and in 2012, some of which had originated from the Netherlands and Peru. The Republic of Korea reported seized ketamine that was perceived to have been trafficked to the country via the United States.

Seizure reports, use data and dismantled laboratories indicate a large market for ketamine in the region. Ketamine seizure information also indicates extensive inter-regional and intra-regional trafficking, with ketamine from the East and South-East Asian region being mostly trafficked to Western Europe and North America.

A growing market for plant-based substances

Traditionally, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) has been used in Malaysia and Thailand as a substitute for opium, and in traditional medicine, due to its “morphine-like” effects. Khat (Catha edulis) is a plant-based NPS, which has only recently emerged in East and South-East Asia and Oceania. Khat contains the amphetamine-type stimulant, cathinone, and has been traditionally used in East Africa and parts of the Middle East. Over the last 6 years, khat use has emerged in several other regions including Europe and North America.

Thailand continues to report the largest amounts of kratom seizures in the region, and there are reports of extensive illicit kratom cultivation and use particularly in the southern parts of the country. In 2013, kratom seizures in Thailand increased by 57 per cent to 45.5 tons from the previous year, and in Malaysia kratom seizures had risen by more than 74 per cent from the previous year to 9.1 tons in 2013. Malaysia continues to report illicit kratom cultivation in the country. Myanmar also annually reported significant amounts of kratom seizures, and law enforcement authorities in Myanmar have eradicated illicit kratom cultivation sites in the Tanintharyi Divison in 2013 and 2014. Kratom seizures have also been reported in New Zealand, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea.

In Thailand, treatment admissions for kratom use increased significantly in 2012 to about 11,600 admissions, signifying a four-fold increase from 2011, and remained at a relatively high level in 2013 at almost 10,000 admissions. However, treatment admissions for kratom use only accounted for 3.2 per cent of all drug use treatment admissions in the country in 2013. Malaysia and Myanmar reported that kratom was one of the most commonly used NPS over the past years.

Khat has more recently emerged in some countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, including Australia, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand and Viet Nam. Between 2008 and 2013, the largest amounts of annual khat seizures were reported by China and Hong Kong (China). Since 2008, when khat seizures were first reported by New Zealand, khat seizures continue to be reported annually. Indonesia was the first country to report of khat cultivation in the region in 2013, when the Indonesian National Narcotics Board (BNN) discovered a 7 hectare khat plantation in Cisarua of Bogor in West Java.

A complex picture of intra- and inter-regional khat trafficking has emerged in recent years. Khat has been perceived to have been trafficked within the region e.g. shipments transiting China and Australia towards New Zealand, as well as being perceived to have been trafficked from East and South-East Asia and Oceania to other regions worldwide. The Vietnamese authorities reported to have seized 5.8 kg of khat in 2012, that was perceived to have been destined for the United States. In that same year, the United States reported that a large share of khat seizures were perceived to have been trafficked via China and Hong Kong (China). There have also been reports of khat accessing markets in East and South-East Asia and Oceania from Africa and South Asia. According to law enforcement authorities in Hong Kong(China), khat seized in 2013 was perceived to have been trafficked from Ethiopia and India and intended for onward trafficking  to China. Some khat seizures reported in New Zealand were also perceived to have originated from North America and Western Europe.

An emerging market for synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones

Over the last few years, an increasing number and availability of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones, has been reported in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, in countries such as Australia, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand.

A large number of synthetic cannabinoids has emerged in Singapore (17 substances), Japan (16 substances), Australia (14 substances) and New Zealand (13 substances) by November 2014. The Republic of Korea reported that synthetic cannabinoid trafficking to the country has substantially increased during the last few years, with seizures annually reported since 2009 and a total of 1.8 kg of synthetic cannabinoids seized in 2013. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have also reported of synthetic cannabinoid seizures cases these last few years. Data on NPS use remains scarce in many countries of the region. The New Zealand Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring 2013 Report found that among detainees who had tried a drug for the first time, 9 per cent had used synthetic cannabinoids for the first time in 2012, which increased to 46 per cent in 2013, while 7 per cent of detainees had used synthetic cannabinoids prior to their arrest in 2013. Although the findings of this survey account for a sub-population and are not representative for the general population, these figures might provide an indication of the growing importance of synthetic cannabinoids in recent years.

With regard to synthetic cathinones, the largest number of substances of this group was reported by Australia (23 substances) followed by New Zealand (13 substances), Singapore (10 substances) and Indonesia (8 substances). In 2013, New Zealand Customs seized a number of NPS imported in powder form, presumably intended to be pressed into tablets. New Zealand and Australian law enforcement authorities identified mephedrone as the seventh and eighth most used drug, respectively in 2013. According to Australian law enforcement authorities, synthetic cathinones in 2012-2013 accounted for the majority of analysed border seizures by number, most of which were detected in air cargo parcels and the international mail stream. In the Republic of Korea, MDPV was observed to be the most frequently detected substance of the synthetic cathinone group, accounting for a 29 per cent share in 2012. Other detected synthetic cathinones include mephedrone and flephedrone. More recently, synthetic cathinones have emerged on the illicit drug market in Indonesia (such as methylone), Thailand (such as dimethylone and ethylone) and Viet Nam (such as mephedrone).

There are some reports of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones as well as other NPS identified in East and South-East Asia and Oceania being manufactured within the region. In 2013, China reported to have dismantled a clandestine laboratory that was primarily synthesizing 4-MEC and methylone as well as JWH-018. According to Chinese law enforcement authorities, most NPS manufactured in the country were not intended for the domestic market but for trafficking to other countries, mainly by express mail and through international courier services. In 2012, Belarus and in 2013, Australia, the United States and the European Union were among the perceived destinations for NPS manufactured in China. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a 1,500 kg seizure report of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones in June 2013, manufactured in India and China was perceived to have been intended for the United States and Australian drug market.  Trafficking of NPS from China and India was reported by several European countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Malta and Poland between 2010 to 2013. Other European countries, such as Italy, reported synthetic cannabinoid seizures that were perceived to have been trafficked from New Zealand in 2011.

Although most NPS seized in Japan were trafficked into the country as blended (ready-for-use) products, some smaller quantities of NPS were blended domestically. In November 2013, Japan Police charged a company that had been manufacturing and selling NPS, arrested 5 people in connection with this case and seized more than 100 kg of the synthetic cathinone alpha-PVP. The precursor chemicals used to manufacture the NPS were believed to have been imported from overseas. In 2013, there have been reports by the Republic of Korea, of synthetic cannabinoids that were perceived to have been trafficked from Japan into the country.

There have also been reports of synthetic cannabinoids perceived to have been trafficked from North America and Western Europe to East and South-East Asia. The Republic of Korea reported that shipments containing JWH-018, JWH-210, AM-2201 in 2013 were perceived to have been trafficked from the United States, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Spain. In 2013, 1.4 kg of synthetic cannabinoids seized in the Republic of Korea, were perceived to have been trafficked from the United States.

NPS sold as such and under the name of controlled drugs

With many NPS sharing similar effects and profiles of substances under international control, they may be used to substitute or complement other drugs. According to the Australian Crime Commission, over the last years, a number of NPS have been used as substitutes for ATS. In a study conducted among frequent users of “ecstasy” and other stimulants in Australia in 2014, 36 per cent had also recently used an NPS (excluding synthetic cannabinoids).

In recent years, countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania have reported NPS that had been sold as “ecstasy”. In these cases, a large share of the tablets sold as “ecstasy” contained substances other than MDMA, such as ketamine, piperazines, synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones and phenethylamines. In East and South-East Asia these substances have been found in “ecstasy” tablets or in preparation form in Australia, Brunei Darussalam, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Macau (China), Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

In New Zealand, blotter paper seizures, which are a typical form of presentation for LSD, a hallucinogen under international control, increased from 1,290 units in 2012 to almost 19,000 dose units in 2013. According to New Zealand law enforcement authorities, many of the largest quantities of blotter paper units seized in 2012 and 2013 were identified or suspected to contain NPS belonging to the NBOMe-series such as 25B-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe and 25I-NBOMe rather than LSD, and the trafficking of NBOMe-series substances was reported to have increased in 2012. The majority of such blotter paper seizures were perceived to have originated from the Netherlands and Germany. Some other countries in the region have also found that seized blotter papers contained NBOMe-series substances instead of LSD.

Recently, ketamine was also found in tablets sold as methamphetamine in the region. Some countries had already reported mixtures of ketamine and methamphetamine in 2009 and 2010. In Indonesia, seizures of tablets sold as methamphetamine in 2012 were reportedly found to contain methamphetamine as well as ketamine and other NPS. In that same year, ketamine and other NPS in addition to methamphetamine were found in tablets sold as methamphetamine in Australia. In 2010, national law enforcement authorities in some countries in East and South-East Asia seized tablets containing a combination of ketamine, BZP and TFMPP, as well as tablets containing 2C-B, which is a substance under international control, mixed with BZP and TFMPP. Some tablets analysed in 2014 contained a combination of TFMPP and methamphetamine, and of methylone and methamphetamine.

The available data indicates that NPS in the region are both sold as such for users who intentionally use them, but also marketed under the names of other drugs, with or without the purported active substance being present, which can involve increased health risks for users.

Which legislative measures have countries adopted to counter NPS?

In recent years, several countries in the region, including Australia, Brunei Darussalam, China, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand, have adopted national legislative controls related to NPS.

Most of the countries in the region implemented an individual listing system as a legislative control of NPS, meaning that each substance is listed individually by their chemical name in the respective schedules/lists of national drug laws. The emergence of BZP in New Zealand in the late 1990s, for example, triggered the inclusion of BZP and other NPS in the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2008. In 2010, Singapore added mephedrone, BZP and TFMPP to the Misuse of Drugs Act, prohibiting trafficking, manufacture, import, export, possession or consumption. In recent years, the Government of China, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand have also taken measures aimed at restricting availability by imposing legislative controls over NPS. In China, mephedrone was listed as a controlled substance in September 2010, followed by several JWH-compounds, khat, 2C-I, 2C-H, AM-694, AM-2201, and MDPV in 2013. To account for the rapid emergence of NPS, some countries have introduced complementary legislative instruments. This includes temporary bans, during which the legislative process can be completed and/or a thorough assessment of the risks of an NPS can be conducted before any decision on permanent control is taken. Such temporary bans have been introduced in New Zealand for a number of synthetic cannabinoids and in the Republic of Korea for MDPV in 2011 as well as in Singapore in 2013 for JWH-compounds, AM-compounds and CP-compounds.

The emergence of new analogues of NPS observed since 2011 prompted the Japanese Government to introduce generic legislation. Japanese generic scheduling defines substances by defining positions and types of substitutes to their basic structure.

So far, NPS specific legislation has only been implemented in New Zealand with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (July 2013), which regulated the sale, import and manufacture of NPS. Initially, some products were granted interim approvals and some manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retailers were granted interim licenses for NPS. In early 2014, the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act 2014 was passed, which removed all interim approvals and licenses from the New Zealand market, prohibited the consideration of animal testing when assessing products, and introduced a moratorium on processing any product approval applications or licensing applications until regulations came into force. In November 2014, regulations providing for product approval applications and licensing applications for importing, research and manufacturing to be processed, came into force. At the time of writing this report, no NPS have been granted a license in accordance with this Act.

Countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania have also used amendments to regulatory instruments such as the Customs Act and Consumer Regulation (in Australia) and the Medicine legislation (in Japan). These instruments differ from the individual listing system, in that their primary intention is not drug control, although they may also list substances individually. In Australia, a number of NPS, such as mephedrone, BZP (in 2010) and a number of CP-compounds (in 2013) have been placed under import control since 2010 by amending the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations of 1956. In Japan, a new category of “designated substances” was introduced in the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law in 2007 which foresees a three-step process of identification for non‐approved or unauthorized pharmaceuticals, which has led to the classification of many NPS as designated substances. As of September 2014, 1,584 substances were potentially controlled under the Japanese Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.

All in all, available information on national legislative responses with regards to NPS demonstrates that different measures and combinations of approaches are being used to respond to the emergence of a growing number of NPS in the region whilst taking the country specific situation into account.