It is against the law to sell the range of psychoactive drugs that were once called legal highs, but they are still available online and on the street – and many young people will come across them. Maryon Stewart, founder of the Angelus Foundation (now Mentor UK), offers her expert advice on how to talk to your child about legal and illegal substances that may alter their mood or behaviour
What are new psychoactive drugs? Which are legal and which are illegal?
They refer generally to the new wave of drugs which were formerly known as ‘legal highs’. We now call them New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). There are many different kinds including stimulant powders, hallucinogens and synthetic cannabis. They’re typically untested, high-potency substances with unpredictable effects. Until recently, many were sold openly on the high street in headshops which could have been confusing young people about how harmful they could be.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 banned the sale of these NPS and the prevalence by 16 to 24-year-olds has been reduced by more than 50% in a year.
What is the legality surrounding psychoactive substances such as laughing gas?
Laughing gas is covered by the ban on NPS sales introduced by the Act, so there is no possession offence. There are commercial uses for nitrous oxide so the supply has not ceased – many young people find it easy to get hold of. Although it is not a welcome thought that your child could be taking such a potent substance, parents should also be reassured that laughing gas is short-acting with an extremely small chance of overdose or addiction.
What can I do as a parent to help educate my child about the dangers of taking psychoactive substances?
I established the Angelus Foundation after my daughter, Hester, died from a legal high. I’m quite convinced she would not have taken it, had she been aware of the risks. Angelus (which merged with Mentor UK last year) was dedicated to educating young people about these new legal drugs to ensure they made a better choice and stayed safe. The website we created for young people, Whynotfindout, contains helpful information and films on NPS as well as drugs, medicine and alcohol.
How can I bring up the awkward topic of drug safety with my child?
Be informed and be careful about where you get your information from. Media reports are designed to elicit an emotional reaction rather than be balanced and informative. First, you need to conquer any fear of bringing up the subject, and being equipped with reliable information will certainly help. You might mention to your child that you heard a report on the news about new substances and ask what they have read about it on social media. Don’t expect to discuss all the issues first time. It may be a short chat at first, but something you can come back to when the time is right. You could talk indirectly about ‘young people’ or ‘friends at school’ to avoid inadvertently implying that you think they may have taken one of these substances.
What should I avoid saying when talking about the dangers of drugs with my child?
Try not to start off by talking about the chances of becoming addicted to any particular substance. Most drug use does not involve addiction and teenagers may relate the issue to people in their 30s and 40s and substances like heroin. Avoid giving them any instruction on how to behave and using words like ‘Don’t’.
‘The point is to help them to be stronger and resist the urge to take risks’
It’s also not going to help if you imply that there is a high risk of them being arrested – they would know this isn’t the case. The point is to help them to be stronger and resist the urge to take risks with substances whether illegal or legal (such as alcohol).
How do I talk to my child about taking substances that may alter their mood or behaviour (legal and illegal?)
Drugs do effect mood and behaviour. Smoking skunk type cannabis can affect mental health causing feelings of paranoia. Regular use can be much more damaging. Ecstasy is also one of the more commonly used drugs and often causes a low mood or feelings of depression 24-48 hours after use. They may not be aware of the reasons for these negative effects as young people may only consider the ‘fun’ aspects. You could encourage them to find out more so that they’re aware of the full range of risks.
What should I do if I suspect that my child is taking drugs?
An open discussion is the only way. It’s all too easy to jump to the wrong conclusions so don’t assume evidence like ripped tobacco paper means they are taking cannabis, it may only be tobacco.‘Talking with your children about New Psychoactive Substances and Club Drugs – A Handbook for Parents and Carers’ contains various suggestions about how to handle these anxieties. Talking to other parents can help so long as they share your concern and want to find practical ways to help rather than stoke fears.
What should I do if they admit they are taking drugs?
The most important thing is to stay calm. It’s good that they’ve come to you and admitted it, as it shows you’re having an honest dialogue. Make sure they’re aware of the risks, the additional risk of mixing drugs especially alcohol and the need to get help quickly if things go wrong. Ask what their girlfriend/boyfriend thinks about it, as relationships are a common way of making people reflect on their drug-taking.
Mentor’s website contains very good advice for parents.
Adfam is also a reliable source of support.
Release provides good legal advice on drug matters.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: December 2017
Updated: May 2018