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New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

March 01 2015

What are they?

A psychoactive substance is defined as any drug which has an effect on the mind (the consciousness, mood or thoughts of an individual). NPS are defined as newly emerged variants of such drugs, which evade (or attempt to evade) control but which present similar harms to their controlled counterparts. However, the term NPS is usually applied to all such drugs, new or old, controlled or non-controlled.


These drugs emerged around 2008, starting with mephedrone or ‘MCAT’. Imported into the UK under the guise of plant food or bath salts (functionally it is neither!), it rapidly became popular, despite often naturally smelling of stale urine (no accounting for taste then!). A host of similar drugs followed. Concerns over public health forced through ‘blanket’ legislation in 2010. However, as the definition implies, yet new versions emerged, falling outside the controls, forcing further legislation later the same year. Now many (but not all) cathinones are controlled. Other cathinones you may have heard of include butylone, naphyrone, PVP and MDPV.  New versions regularly emerge in an attempt to evade legal control.

Synthetic cannabinols

This class of drugs emerged at a similar time to the cathinones, typically impregnated into innocuous herbal material, and bought under various names (for example ‘Spice’, ‘Black Mamba’ or ‘Annihilation’) from head (legal high) shops. The drugs are chemically diverse, often not closely related to natural cannabinol drugs at all, but having similar effects. Blanket legislation was introduced to control these substances late in 2010, but with limited success due to their complex and varied chemistry. In fact, around half of the existing synthetic cannabinols fall outside current legislation in the UK and Europe as a whole.


Some of these drugs have been around for a long time, examples including LSD and psilocin. They are not very common drugs currently, but will probably have their day. The onset of such an era may be heralded by a recent variant, AMT (α-methyltryptamine), now controlled.


Often being sourced from unscrupulous, back-street laboratories abroad, the product labelling is not always aligned with the actual contents; traces of controlled components may be present (in otherwise legal products) and legislation changes can create drug offences overnight without the owner realising.

What can KBC do to help?

It has been our experience that these newer drugs always warrant a second look. As well as the above issues, our examinations have shown that forensic providers can and do mis-identify these drugs, analysing them without bona fide standards, and that the legislation is so complex that even when the chemical has been identified, it can be incorrectly classified as being controlled under UK law.

We can establish if the materials have been appropriately analysed and the results correctly interpreted.

We can have the drugs independently tested against bona fide standards, including purity determinations.

We can review the putative identity against the complex amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act.


Julian Dunnill

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