From the street to the web: social media fuelling the rise of legal highs

Post del 1 Maggio 2016

With the increasing popularity of social media, especially among teenagers, researchers at the University of Hertfordshire are concerned that social networking sites may already be playing an active role in promoting novel psychoactive substances (NPS), otherwise known as legal highs, to children as young as 12*.

Networking sites, including fora and blogs, are being used to buy and sell NPS, whilst also playing an indirect role in marketing these products to young people, such as experience sharing and sharing photos and videos. Deaths involving NPS such as mephedrone, have increased sharply in recent years** and many NPS are so new that they have not yet been formally tested in controlled studies. This raises fundamental concerns over issues of safety, toxicity as well as potentially fatal side effects.

It’s not just social networking sites that are promoting NPS. The Deep Web – content not indexed by standard search engines – and the Dark Net – a subsection of the Deep Web which consists of anonymous online networks and resources – have also contributed to the rise and popularity of NPS. Users are attracted by these substances due to their intense psychoactive effects and likely lack of detection in routine drug screenings.

The world we live in

Dr Laura Orsolini, Senior Research Assistant at the University of Hertfordshire, is a specialist on the deep web and works on the EU-funded EPS/NPS Project – Enhancing Police Skills concerning Novel Psychoactive Substances. Dr Orsolini, who won the Young Researcher’s Award for her research in addiction during the European Psychiatric Association Conference in Madrid last month, believes that we are living in an anarchic, free-market world where drug legislation is being outpaced by chemistry and technology.

“There’s no doubt that the web plays a major role in shaping this unregulated market. Vulnerable people, including children, adolescents and psychiatric patients, may be exposed to a plethora of ‘pro drug’ web pages, which provide direct drug purchase opportunities and/or drug information, such as description of the drug effects, dose, chemistry and intake experiences. Patients are no longer patients but consumers and the high level of IT skills needed to access hidden dark web sites suggests that they are young, well-educated and have easy access to the web,” said Dr Orsolini.

New generation of users

This has led to a new generation of skilled drug users – ‘e-Psychonauts’. “These new consumers are attracted to the unexpected effects of unknown drugs and open-minded to the exploration of their ‘inner ‘soul’. They have a strong sense of community and are eager to share their own experiences with others. They possess a sound general knowledge on pharmaceutical/ chemical properties of drugs and have high levels of verbal fluency in reporting drug experiences. I believe they are more likely to be educated males, aged between 15 – 35 years and in a respectable occupation,” continued Dr Orsolini.

Given the rapidly developing online market for NPS, the University of Hertfordshire is keen to increase knowledge and understanding about the nature and the effects of NPS worldwide, as well as promote innovative strategies to prevent the diffusion of NPS in society.

Next steps

To help it attain these goals, the University and other partners and supporters, including the European Commission, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Anti-Doping Agency, among other academic institutions across Europe, are hosting the IV International Conference on Novel Psychoactive Substances, 30 – 31 May 2016 in Budapest. The conference, with participants from over 30 countries, will be of interest to health professionals, youth workers, educators, policy makers, and anyone involved in the prevention and treatment of drug addiction. Registration is still open. However, if you are unable to attend you can view the live streams here.

* National Student Drug Survey 2015
** ONS Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning in England and Wales, 2012

Dr Laura Orsolini is currently collaborating as a senior research assistant at the Psychopharmacology, Drug Misuse and Novel Psychoactive Substances Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire on the EU-funded EPS/NPS Project – Enhancing Police Skills concerning Novel Psychoactive Substances. This project aims to scientifically identify, assess and monitor existing and emerging NPS and their online as well as offline supply chains on the basis of a multidisciplinary approach, such as criminological, sociological, chemical, clinical, forensic and legal. The EPS/NPS Project also aims to promote awareness, visibility, dissemination and information exchange on NPS.

Dr Orsolini is also an active contributor and social media coordinator for the EU-MADNESS Project (EUropean-wide, Monitoring, Analysis and knowledge Dissemination on Novel/Emerging pSychoactiveS), a 24-month project spanning across five countries, funded by the EU-Commission and led by the University of Hertfordshire, which aims ‘to monitor, test, profile, and feed back into education and prevention knowledge relating to the types of NPS emerging in Europe, their associated characteristics and potential harms’.


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