Psychoactive substances represent drugs that were formulated to mimic the effects of conventional street drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, while remaining legal substances; thus, they were previously called “legal highs”. Psychoactive substances began to appear in UK’s drug scene between 2008 and 2009. These substances fall into one of four main classes:

1. Synthetic cannabinoids: the effects of these drugs resemble those of cannabis and are sold under several names such as Black Mamba, Clockwork Orange, Strokes, Spice and Exodus Damnation. Synthetic cannabinoids are not related to the cannabis plant, yet their chemicals which are mixed with the base plant substance have similar effects on the brain as tetra-hydro-cannabinoids (THC).

2. Stimulants: this class of psycho-active substances includes drugs that are similar to conventional stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy. This class of drugs includes mephedrone, BZP, NRG-1, MPDV, MDAI, Benzo Fury and ethylphenidate.

3. Downers: The effects of these drugs mimic those of conventional downers including anti-anxiety drugs and tranquilizers, particularly benzodiazepines such as Pyrazolam, Etizolam and Flubromazepam.

4. Hallucinogens: These resemble conventional hallucinogens such as LSD. This class of drugs include Bromo Dragonfly, 25i-NBOMeand ketamine-like drugs such as methoxetamine.



Banning Psychoactive Substances in the UK:

The UK banned the production and use of psychoactive substances in May, 2016. Before this date, it wasn’t illegal to manufacture, distribute or use them. Accordingly, any person today involved in the manufacturing or selling of psycho-active substances could be incarcerated for up to 7 years. Critics believe that the new legislation would put psycho-active substances in the hands of dangerous criminals and increase the potential users of these hazardous drugs.

The new legislation has vested a great magnitude of power on law enforcement authorities to search individuals, vehicles as well as premises and seek and destroy any found psycho-active substances. Nevertheless, possession of psycho-active substances by individuals in the UK will not be considered a criminal offense.

Transform’s spokesperson, which is a drugs-think tank, told the Guardian in an interview that politicians can now claim laurels for ending real-world shop sales of psychoactive substances, yet their street sales and online sales on the deep web would rise imposing even more health hazards.

Despite the fact that now psychoactive substances are not available for sale over-the-counter in the UK, they are somehow easy to buy on the darknet. Practically, it seems that most sellers targeting UK customers have been stockpiling these drugs, as they predicted a rise in demand. Consequently, the prices of most psychoactive substances have risen rather steeply.

How can laws banning psycho-active substances affect the availability of these substances on the deep web?

Before psychoactive substances were banned, they were manufactured, sold and consumed legally. New legislations are expected to affect the availability and rate of consumption of these hazardous drugs. A paper that has been published recently examined the pre- and post-control availability of psychoactive substances namely 25I-NBOMe, MPDV, AH-7921 and MXE on various markets on the deep web via assessment using EMCDDA. The researchers collected data using a semi-automated software tool, known as (I-TREND SASF) from darknet markets, in various languages including English, French, Polish, Czech and Dutch, that offered shipping of these pyscho-active substances to various countries.

The number of e-commerce darknet sites that offered selling and shipping of psycho-active substances have decreased between III/2014 and XII/2015 (except AH-7921). Both of decreases and increases were detected on the country level for all forms of psycho-active substances (except for a total decrease in MXE). According to one instance, NPS was not available on the market in the year 2015 (25I-NBOMe in NL), AH-7921 and 25I-NMOMe in France and in Poland, AH-7921 was available for the first time ever in 2015 after being put under control. The websites that offered 25I-NBOMe, AH-7921 and MDPV in XII-2015 ranked higher regarding popularity when compared to III/2014.

The results of the study concluded that there is no evidence supporting that the national level ban of psychoactive substances has influenced online psycho-active substances’ markets on the deep web. Parameters indicating availability, accessibility, popularity and IP origin of markets, if could ever be obtained, should be considered in risk assessment. Furthermore, data triangulation with the darknet markets and street markets is required along with more research studies into the replacement and displacement of psychoactive substances control laws.

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