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The Belgian Early Warning System on drugs (BEWSD) is the result of the adoption of the  Joint Action (JA) on New Synthetic Drugs (NSDs) (European Union 1997) by the Belgian government. The first steps in the development of this BEWS were taken at the end of 1997 by establishing the cooperation between the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Justice. The initial aim of the BEWS was the collection and distribution of social, medical and cultural information on new synthetic drugs and (combinations of) high-risk psychoactive substances by the Belgian Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (BMCDDA, the Belgian focal point) and the Regional Focal Points (RFP). However, practical matters (e.g. new drugs are often sold as known ones), led to the decision to collect information at laboratories’ level. In February 1999, the BMCDDA performed a feasibility study to investigate whether a web-based database with all analytical results of analysed drugs would facilitate the monitoring tasks of the BEWS. This web-based database was operationalized in 2002 (Leus et al. 2001;Leus and Walckiers 2002). Currently, a new version of this technical platform is under development.

The BEWS is hosted by the BMCDDA which is embedded in the research program ‘Substance use and Related Disorders’ (SURD) of the service Surveys, Lifestyle and Chronic Diseases. This service is part of the Operational Directory ‘Public Health and Surveillance’ of the Scientific Institute of Public Health (WIV-ISP), situated in Brussels. The BMCDDA monitors, collects, analyses and disseminates drug-related information towards the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and towards its national stakeholders. The EMCDDA and the Federal Government Department of Public Health, Food Safety and the Environment finance the BMCDDA and its BEWS.

The main objectives of the BEWS are (1) the rapid detection of new psychoactive substances in Belgium and (2) the monitoring of the composition of known illicit substances and high-risk trends in the composition of these illicit substances. In order to fulfil these objectives, the BEWS relies on the reporting of drug analyses by laboratories. The reporting of the analysis results to the BEWS is regulated by 2 Royal Decrees (Federale Overheidsdienst Volksgezondheid 2003;Federale Overheidsdienst Volksgezondheid 2006;Service Public Federal Santé Publique 2006;Service Public Federal Sante Publique 2003). These Royal Decrees make the reporting of analytical results to the BEWS mandatory for the toxicological laboratories in Belgium, except for cannabis. The reporting of analytical results by clinical laboratories is only mandatory for new substances (see also Figure 1).

Complementary to the national BEWS, two regional focal points (Eurotox and the Vereniging voor Alcohol- en andere Drugproblemen, VAD) host a regional EWS. As the BEWS is responsible for the monitoring of trends in the compositions of analyzed seized drugs, the regional EWSs focus on the prevention level. They therefore collaborate with services like ‘De Druglijn’, a telephone helpline for people (not only users) with questions about drugs. The three EWSs collaborate in the dissemination of ‘alerts’ when new or high-risk psychoactive substances are reported.