The government is to review the trade of “legal highs” in a bid to clamp down the soaring numbers of new and potentially fatal drugs.
Ten new psychoactive substances, also known as “legal highs” were identified last year for the first time in the UK by a specialist government system that targets music festivals and tobacco shops.
A total of 27 have now been detected by the Home Office’s Forensic Early Warning System since it was set up in January 2011.
Official figures also show that the number of deaths being linked to legal highs soared by 80 per cent last year to 52, from 29 in 2011.
The review will look at how the UK’s laws and enforcement against new legal highs can be improved.
Crime prevention minister Norman Baker said: “The coalition government is determined to clamp down on the reckless trade in so-called legal highs, which has tragically already claimed the lives of far too many young people in our country.
“Despite being marketed as legal alternatives to banned drugs, users cannot be sure of what they contain and the impact they will have on their health. Nor can they even be sure that they are legal.
The move comes as the government announces that two new groups of substances – NBOMe and Benzofury – will become classified as Class A and B drugs respectively.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, a charity supporting professionals working in drug and alcohol treatment, said: “It has been clear for some time that the law has been unable to keep pace with the chemistry when it comes to the production and supply of new drugs.
“As DrugScope’s recent Street Drug Trends Survey highlighted, in some areas so-called ‘legal highs’ are not only being sold online and in ‘headshops’, but in outlets such as newsagents, petrol stations and take-away food shops.
“This is an attempt by the Home Office to bolster current enforcement efforts and to see what other legislative options could be brought to bear on this new and complex drug situation.
But the Shadow crime and security minister Diana Johnson said the government has taken too long to act.
She said: “The Home Secretary came into office promising ‘swift action’ on legal highs. Three years later she is launching a review.
“In the meantime hundreds of substances have come on to the UK market and thousands of sellers have opened up.
“While the government have failed to act, hundreds of thousands of young people have been trying these drugs, and sadly this has often had fatal consequences.”
The review will be led by the Home Office, with input from experts in law enforcement, science, health and academia and will present its findings in spring 2014.