Image: e-Magine art
So-called legal highs have received a lot of attention, with reports of overdoses in the news and a government ban on all psychoactive substances,which came into effect in Spring 2016*. In 2012, a survey of 16-24 year-olds conducted by the Angelus Foundation found that 45% of respondents said they had been offered legal highs, 39% knew where to find them and 58% had friends who had tried them. Legal highs are a part of life for many young people – so it would be unwise not to be clued up about them.
What are they?
Legal highs are substances meant to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. They are often synthetic compounds made in labs, with similar composition to illegal drugs but modified enough to get around the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - which may also be known as NPS (new or novel psychoactive substances).
Some legal highs are ‘herbal highs’ – naturally occurring in substances like seeds, herbs and cacti, and having psychoactive effects.
How are they sold?
NPS can be bought from a number of sources – in stores known as head shops, for instance – and online. It isn’t yet against the law to sell many NPS (although this is due to change) but they can’t be sold for human consumption. To get around this, suppliers sometimes market them as bath salts, plant food or research chemicals.
What are some examples?
Mephedrone (also known as M-Cat or meow meow) was one of the first high-profile NPS. In 2008 it emerged as a cheaper, purer alternative to ecstasy or amphetamines, popular in clubs and at universities, easy to order online and often delivered through the post. Many people reported severe comedowns after taking mephedrone, sometimes lasting several days. Mephedrone was made a Class B drug in 2010, due to its popularity and concern about its risks. Media coverage featured exaggerated stories of extreme and dangerous behaviour allegedly caused by M-Cat. It’s unclear, so far how effective the ban has been at decreasing use.
Synthetic cannabinoids are one of the most popular NPS. They often come in a powder or crystal form and are sprayed onto inert plant material to be smoked. Though they are usually a cannabis substitute, anecdotally many are stronger, causing short, hallucinatory trips and making users feel ill after smoking. Some synthetic cannabinoids (like Spice) have been banned, but many are still legal.
The risks and the law
Some people think NPS are less dangerous than other drugs, but legality is no guarantee of safety. They often have very powerful effects. Some can be addictive. Many are so new that drug experts haven’t studied them in enough detail to offer guidance on harm-reduction – and very little is known about their long-term effects, especially on developing brains.
In May 2015 the government announced a blanket ban on the production and distribution of all legal highs, specifying that it would be illegal to supply ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.’ The ban came into effect in May 2016 - more information can be found here. The legal change targets suppliers, but could also have implications for users who order NPS online (which usually involves importing them from another country).
What parents can do
1) Communicate. Talking to your children regularly about what’s going on in their lives makes it easier to talk openly about drugs without it becoming a big deal for everyone. If they know they can trust you, they’ll be more receptive to having the conversation and hearing your advice.
2) Get the facts. No one is expecting you to learn everything about these drugs, of course, but knowing more might help you feel more confident when you talk to your child. Try to avoid believing everything you read about legal highs in the media – sometimes their risks are exaggerated or the most sensational stories are highlighted. If your child thinks you’re just trying to scare them, your advice might be less convincing.
3) Ask what they know already. With 61% of university freshers surveyed by the Angelus Foundation saying they have a friend who’s tried legal highs, it’s very possible that your child already knows something about them. Rather than launching into a lecture about the risks, you might tell your child you saw an article about legal highs recently and ask what they’ve heard.
4) Try to keep an open mind. You might find out your child has thought about trying legal highs – or that they have already. Try not to appear too shocked or angry. Stay calm and let them talk frankly if possible.
5) Prepare for difficult questions. When you talk to your child about a tricky subject like drugs, you should be aware that they might ask you a question you don’t quite know how to answer. This could be a technical question about the effects of certain drugs, or a philosophical one about the difference between taking legal highs and drinking alcohol.
If you or your child still has questions, www.whynotfindout.org is a good resource for finding out the legal status, chemical constituents and history of many legal and illegal drugs.
There’s also some information about the various classes of drugs on https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/drug-misuse-and-dependency.
For more general information on legal highs and other drugs, you can also visit Talk to Frank’s website.
Update, August 2017
* In August 2017 a court case in Taunton resulted in two defendents being cleared of breaking the law by possessing nitrous oxide. The court ruled that it is exempt from the 2016 law banning psychoactive substances, so-called legal highs, because it is a medicine, even if it's being being used as such. Read more.