New psychoactive substances in Eurasia: a qualitative study of people who use drugs and harm reduction services in six countries

This study examines the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) and the harm reduction response in six Eurasian countries: Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. The aim is to identify current patterns of NPS use and related harms in each country through recording the perspectives and lived experience of people who use drugs and people who provide harm reduction services in order to inform the harm reduction response.

Methodology

The study involved desk-based research and semi-structured interviews/focus groups with 124 people who use drugs and 55 health and harm reduction service providers across the six countries.

Results

People who use drugs in all countries were aware of NPS, primarily synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids. NPS users generally reflected two groups: those with no prior history of illicit drug use (typically younger people) and those who used NPS on an occasional or regular basis due to the lack of availability of their preferred drug (primarily opiates). In many cases, these respondents reported they would not use NPS if traditional opiates were available. Common factors for choosing NPS included cost and accessibility. Respondents in most countries described NPS markets that use the DarkNet and social media for communication, secretive methods of payment and hidden collection points. A recurring theme was the role of punitive drug policies in driving NPS use and related harms. Respondents in all countries agreed that current harm reduction services were important but needed to be enhanced and expanded in the context of NPS.

Conclusions

The study identified patterns and drivers of NPS use, risk behaviours and drug-related harms. It identified gaps in the current harm reduction response, particularly the needs of non-injectors and overdose response, as well as the harmful effects of punitive drug policies. These findings may inform and improve current harm reduction services to meet the needs of people who use NPS.

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