Heroin graphic.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock/Kheng guan Toh​

A new surveillance system aims to help public health officials spot new recreational drugs—such as synthetic cannabinoids and the designer stimulant known as “Molly”—and drug trends as they develop. Called the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), the 5-year project is being run by the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

“NDEWS will generate critically needed information about new drug trends in specific locations around the country so that rapid, informed, and effective public health responses can be developed precisely where needed,” said Nora D. Volkow, NIDA director, in a prepared statement. “By monitoring trends at the local level, we hope to prevent emerging drug problems from escalating or spreading to surrounding regions.”

NIDA awarded CESAR $3 million to develop this system, with the goal of not only monitoring emergency drug trends but also allowing public health experts to “respond quickly to potential outbreaks of illicit drugs such as heroin and identify increased use of designer synthetic compounds,” according to a statement from the University of Maryland.

The project, which started this month, will use traditional data, social media, and websites to spot new trends. Information about how to find and use designer synthetic drugs spreads quickly to millions of people through social media and other parts of the Internet, CESAR notes, citing recent increases in the use of heroin as an example. NDEWS will be able to identify trends faster than traditional data collection and reporting methods, which may take a year or more to glean information.

Check out NIDA’s website for updates on the project, and read the University of Maryland’s press release​ about the new system.