The Law

Under control?

NPS, as well as other drugs and medicines, may be described as being ’controlled‘ or ’not controlled‘ by law. To ‘control’ psychoactive substances, an international drug control system exists. This systems contains three international conventions (agreements) set up by the United Nations in 1961, 1971, and 1988.

To NPS, only the conventions of 1961 and 1971 apply. In these agreements, substances are ranked according to their risk for abuse and therapeutic or medical value. Substances on Schedule I, such as MDMA or LSD, are considered most dangerous, and are most strictly controlled. The international drug control agreements do not, however, require any country in the UN to treat the consumption of drugs as a punishable act (as opposed to possession of drugs).

National and international

NPS will not immediately be under national or international control. NPS are often newly developed chemical compounds which are therefore not yet known and listed in drug schedules. So at first instance, the substance will be allowed to be produced, sold and bought. When an NPS is discovered by law enforcement and/or laboratories, and reported to national or European ‘early warning systems’ for new drugs, it will be monitored how much (health) harms a substance causes in society. When the (possible) damage has been evaluated, it may be decided to control a new substance. It will then be added to a (national or international) scheduling list for ‘illegal drugs’. Production, trafficking, trade, and possession of the substance are thereby made strictly controlled (or punishable) acts.

In Belgium, since 26 September 2017, a new Royal Decree (RD) “regulating the regulation of narcotics, psychotropic substances” has been in force.
What is new about this law is that it no longer bans (as before) substances per substance or drug per drug, but immediately makes illegal groups of psychoactive substances.

The new RD contains an extensive list that lists groups of psychoactive substances such as (amphetamines, cathinones, tryptamines, piperazines, synthetic cannabinoids, and fentanyl). As a result, not only all known NPS are illegal but also all new drugs that could still be developed and belong to those groups. For example, the government wants to break the situation of the past with an adjustment of the law for every new drug.

In short: due to this change in legislation, all New Psychoactive Substances have been made illegal in one go.

The law provides for the possibility of importing or selling these substances through a permit such as a pharmaceutical manufacturer. But those who do not have the same prison sentences and fines as for well-known illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, XTC, speed or heroin.

World Health Organisation

Through the website of the World Health Organisation, the lists with all substances under international control can be found. The WHO evaluates the risks of psychoactive substances, and then gives advice on which should be put under international control (and under which schedule). Individual countries can also place substances or entire chemical substance groups under control through national drug laws, even when these substances are not (yet) under international control. For information on which substances and/or substance groups are controlled in your country, please check your country’s webpage through this website.

A very clear explanation of the legal definition of NPS and the difference between controlled versus uncontrolled substances (nationally and internationally) is given in this short clip by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.