New Psychoactive substances (NPS): results of a questionnaire on the definition of NPS, proposals to establish a forensic centre for excellence, and improving data collection and information sharing

Results of a questionnaire on the definition of new psychoactive substances, proposals to establish a forensic centre for excellence, and improving data collection and information sharing

Executive Summary


This report presents the results of a questionnaire on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) issued by the Scottish Government in September 2015. The aim of the questionnaire was to gather views on three key areas: a definition of NPS, proposals to establish a Forensic Centre for Excellence, and options for improving data collection and information sharing.

The results will be used to inform on-going discussions with the UK Government and stakeholders in Scotland in relation to implementation of the Psychoactive Substances Act, and to further develop the Scottish Government's policy programme on NPS.

Consultation responses and respondents

A total of 54 responses were received to the questionnaire: 24 from individuals and 30 from organisations. This included enforcement, health, academic and third sector stakeholders.

Defining New or Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

Overall there were high levels of agreement that the legal definition of psychoactive substances set out in the Psychoactive Substances Act should be adopted by a wide range of stakeholders. There were a number of concerns raised about the specific definition proposed, for example the absence of the concept of harm. However, for the majority of respondents it appeared that concerns about the definition were outweighed by the benefits of having a consistent definition that could be used widely.

There was also agreement with proposals to categorise NPS based on their effects, in line with the Drugs Wheel Model. This would categorise NPS under nine categories: opioids, stimulants, empathogens, psychedelics, dissociatives, depressants, cannabinoids, and 'other' or 'unknown'. However, there was some disagreement about whether the proposed categories could be applied by people who were not experts in NPS. Suggestions to ensure that these categories could be applied accurately included providing additional resources, training, and guidance, as well as input from experts in order to assign substances to categories. It was also suggested that categorisation be based on actual effect rather than intended effect, and that the number of categories be reduced to minimise confusion.

Identifying and Detecting NPS

There was broad agreement amongst respondents with the proposed functions of a Forensic Centre for Excellence. These functions included leading on the identification of NPS, testing for psychoactivity, linking identification of NPS with harms and treatment and developing national reference standards. They also included linking in with other data sharing systems (e.g. the UK Forensic Early Warning System), and sharing information with relevant partners and services.

A number of respondents provided information about how they could potentially support the proposed functions. This ranged from chemical and toxicology analysis, to collating local intelligence to feed into a central hub of information.

There was some disagreement with the proposal that Police Scotland, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Scottish Prison Service, Local Authority Trading Standards Services and Border Force should be the key priority areas for submitting NPS samples. Overall however, the majority agreed with the proposed list. There was also strong support for NHS Emergency Departments to be able to submit biological samples for testing.

While most respondents agreed that it would be useful if Emergency Departments captured data on harms associated with specific NPS samples, a number of challenges to achieving this in practice were noted. In particular this included the need to improve data capture systems, and increase capacity within services to record data on NPS. The challenge of knowing whether symptoms were NPS related or not, and gaps in knowledge about NPS and their effects were also seen as key barriers. Suggestions for overcoming these barriers included capitalising on existing systems and processes.

Improving information sharing on NPS

Improving information sharing on NPS was a key priority among respondents. A number of suggestions for the content and nature of dissemination of information on NPS were made. This included contextual information about a sample such as name and dose consumed, forensic identification of the substance, and its effects. The majority of respondents indicated that it would be most useful to receive this information on a monthly basis, although some thought it would be helpful to have access in real time. Suggestions about the format of dissemination ranged from a shared database to email bulletins. There were different views about disseminating information to members of the public.

There were high levels of agreement that a Forensic Centre for Excellence should manage and disseminate alerts on new and potentially harmful NPS. However, the timing of alerts and quality control of the information disseminated were seen to be critical to the success of an alert system. Suggestions were also made about the need to align any new process with existing alert systems used by Police Scotland and Health Protection Scotland, as well as wider UK and international arrangements. It was also suggested that any alert system should be for all substances of misuse and not specific to NPS.

Additional questions on identifying NPS for the purposes of prosecution

Respondents reported that they would anticipate submitting both drug samples and biological samples for forensic testing, mostly in small quantities. The exception to this was health services, where potentially much larger quantities were expected. Respondents also anticipated a number of benefits to be gained if there was improved access to reference standards held by a Centre for Excellence.


These results indicate that there was a high level of consensus amongst respondents in relation to the definition of NPS, the functions of a Centre for Excellence, and the importance of improving data capture and information sharing. Key areas for further consideration include guidance on the use of the model to categorise NPS, overcoming challenges related to improving routine data capture on NPS, and incorporating any plans for an alert system into existing systems and processes.


Email: Isla Wallace

Back to top