A NEW breed of designer drugs cooked up in backstreet laboratories threatens to flood the market, posing untold risks to the health and safety of users.
Gardai and health officials are alarmed at a rise in the use of psychoactive drugs, which has spiralled over the past year.
A lack of information on the chemical make-up of the ever-changing drugs has heightened fears about the health risks they pose to users.
The synthetic substances, which are generally manufactured in laboratories in the Netherlands and eastern Europe but are also being imported from China, have become more popular since the downturn in the economy.
For many recreational users they have replaced cocaine.
In the coming year, the drugs have been listed by gardai as a top priority problem.
A senior officer with the garda national drugs unit (GNDU) warned: "The manufacturers mix the chemicals to generate the same effect as traditional drugs but they consistently vary the mix, which leaves them a step ahead of the authorities in putting the drugs on the controlled list."
So far this year a total of 73 new psychoactive products have been identified in Europe in addition to 58 new arrivals on the market last year.
Some of those products were initially on sale in the so-called 'head' shops.
Ireland was ahead of its European counterparts in introducing legislation to close these shops.
But since then, users have been turning to the internet to source the substances.
The switch back to synthetics has also led to a return to the market of ecstasy, the sales of which had plummeted in recent years.
Ecstasy producers are now sourcing more MDMA, which alters the contents of the tablets, and the street price has doubled from €5 to €10 per tablet.
A number of drug deaths in the past year has been attributed to the chemical mix used in these ecstasy-like tablets.
And gardai are concerned that ecstasy users often tend to move towards known harder drugs.
The GNDU this year seized 40kg of precursor chemicals, which are used in the manufacture of ecstasy.
That seizure prompted further inquiries to see if a gang was trying to set up a laboratory to reduce the reliance on overseas products.
However, no evidence of an Irish lab has yet been found.
Other seizures include 350,000 ecstasy tablets, which is well up on last year.
Also intercepted were 30kg of heroin, 31kg of cocaine, 6,000 cannabis plants in growhouses, 600kg of herbal cannabis and 200kg of cannabis resin.
The overall street value is estimated at €28m, according to figures until the end of November, which is slightly down on the 2012 figure.
Heroin is on a downward trend as the user population is ageing, but a relatively new phenomenon is the slight increase in the use of that drug outside the capital.
There is evidence of emerging heroin problems in Athlone, Cavan, Drogheda, Dundalk and the midlands towns, while big provincial centres such as Cork, Limerick and Waterford retain their own problems.
However, officers stress that the increase is minor and there are no signs of an epidemic.
It is estimated there are between 18,000 and 23,000 heroin addicts in the State, of which 16,000 are in Dublin. That figure has dropped marginally on the previous year but the numbers have been largely static over the past few decades.