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International Watchdog Warns Against Designer Drugs

Dangerous drugs that may seem safe at first because they're made to dodge bans are being produced more quickly and in greater numbers, watchdog said.

VIENNA (AP) -- Dangerous drugs that may seem safe at first because they're made to dodge bans are being produced more quickly and in greater numbers, often with instructions readily available online, a watchdog warned Wednesday.

Governments should step up their efforts to crack down on so-called designer drugs by closely monitoring abuse trends and making new substances illegal as soon as possible, the International Narcotics Control Board said in its annual report.

"Given the health risks posed by the abuse of designer drugs, we urge governments to adopt national control measures to prevent the manufacture, trafficking in and abuse of these substances," said Hamid Ghodse, the board's president.

While 16 such new drugs are currently being monitored in Europe, Japan recently placed 51 under national control, the report said, adding that a growing number of countries and regions have detected such stimulants.

According to the report, designer drugs are often made by tweaking the molecular structure of illegal substances to create a new product with a comparable effect. They include the party drug mephedrone, sometimes also known as "meow meow," whose effects are reported to be similar to cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy.

"They can be easily manufactured, as instructions on their manufacture and a description of their pharmacological effects are often found on the Internet," the report said, adding governments should consider making groups of substances illegal at a time to slow the process of finding replacements for them.

The report also included these findings:

-- The United States continues to be a prime destination for shipments of illegal drugs and recorded an increase in the abuse of all drugs except cocaine in 2009. It also continues to see an increase in the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, with abuse on the rise among young people. According to government data, so-called pain clinics in some states dispense or prescribe large amounts of prescription opioids to people with no need for them. Canada, meanwhile, remains one of the world's main sources for illegally made synthetic drugs, especially ecstasy and methamphetamine and is also a "significant supplier" of high-potency cannabis.

-- The large profits generated by the illegal drug trade make it possible for criminal groups to engage in large-scale corruption that includes paying off police to let them operate more freely. This can impact the credibility and efficiency of a country's criminal justice system and weaken the rule of law. In turn, it also can undermine international cooperation to crack down on drugs. In Mexico, for example, corruption continues to obstruct efforts to fight drug trafficking.

-- In Europe, the abuse of cocaine is spreading from the western part of the continent to other areas and in some countries such as Denmark, Spain and Britain, cocaine may be replacing amphetamine and ecstasy. Europe is also the world's largest market for opiates, with the Russian Federation having the highest number of abusers.

-- Central America and the Caribbean continue to be a transit area for large-scale smuggling of illegal drugs and the situation is worsened by endemic corruption, poverty and high unemployment. There is concern that earthquake-hit Haiti, already regarded as a major transit area for drug shipments to North America before the January 2010 disaster, is becoming more of a hotspot for such activity.

-- In some South American countries, financial support for efforts to address drug-related problems are insufficient. The governments of Bolivia and Peru should take measures to reduce the area under coca bush cultivation and to fight the production and trafficking of cocaine. The abuse of cocaine appears to be increasing in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Although Colombia is still the main source of cocaine detected in Europe, Peru is becoming increasingly important.

-- In Africa, there has been an increase in the abuse of almost all types of drugs over the past few years, with cannabis topping the list. Large-scale smuggling of cocaine from South America through West Africa appears to have picked up again last year after the number of seizures reported in the region fell in 2008 and 2009 after peaking in 2007. The cocaine is largely destined for Europe and North America.

-- In East and Southeast Asia, an issue of "paramount concern" is the increase in trafficking, production and abuse of synthetic drugs. South Asia, meanwhile, has become one of the prime areas for drug traffickers to obtain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine for the production of methamphetamine.

-- In Afghanistan, the number of opium-free provinces remained the same in 2010 but a rise in opium prices may push farmers to grow more poppy this year.

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