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What are ‘legal highs’?
‘Legal highs’ that are actually legal contain one or more chemical substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs (like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy). These new substances are not yet controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and there is often not enough research about them to know about their potency, adverse effects from human consumption, or when used with other substances or alcohol.
However, more and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what their dangers are and to see whether they should be made illegal. In fact, many substances that have been found in substances sold as ‘legal highs’ have already been made illegal.
‘Legal highs’ cannot be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as incense, salts or plant food to get round the law. The packaging may describe a list of ingredients but you cannot be sure that this is what the product will contain.
Just the fact that a substance is sold as ‘legal’ doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. You can’t really be sure of what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends. We know that many ‘legal highs’ are sold under brand names like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘Bliss’, ‘Mary Jane’ and have been directly linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services and, in some cases, deaths.
‘Legal highs’ are usually sold as powders, pills, smoking mixtures, liquids, capsules, or on perforated tabs.
The powders can range from white to brown to yellow in colour and from flour-like to little crystals in consistency. The pills and capsules can range widely in size, shape and colour.
The smoking mixtures tend to come in colourful packaging, often with labels describing the contents as incense or herbal smoking mixture, and the contents look like dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings. It’s common for synthetic cannabinoids to be added to the dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings to make a smoking mixture.’
The packaging may describe a list of ingredients but you cannot be sure that this is what the product will contain. It’s likely designed to get your attention using a catchy brand name and bright colours.
‘Legal highs’ that come as powders, pills or capsules tend to be snorted or swallowed, while ‘legal high’ smoking mixtures are either smoked in a ‘joint’/’spliff’ or by using a pipe.
There have been reports of some people injecting certain ‘legal highs’. Injecting any drug, including ‘legal highs’, is particularly dangerous as a drug is more likely to reach harmful or fatal levels by this route. Also, the veins may be damaged by the injecting process and an abscess or blood clot may develop, which can then cause further serious health problems like infection of the blood or heart problems.
A number of these injection-related effects can lead to serious local scarring and can be disabling or even fatal. Sharing injecting equipment such as needles or syringes, runs the additional risks of catching or spreading viruses such as HIV or hepatitis C.
What are the effects of ‘legal highs’?
The main effects of almost all ‘psychoactive’ drugs, including ‘legal highs’, can be described using three main categories:
Whilst drugs in each of the categories will have similarities in the kinds of effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths and effects on different people.
What are the risks of ‘legal highs’?
Just the fact that a substance is sold as ‘legal’ doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. You can’t really be sure of what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends.
Many of these risks are increased if the ‘legal high’ is combined with alcohol or with another psychoactive drug. There have been cases of death too.
The three main categories of drugs do not detail every reported risk of every single ‘legal high’. In fact, for many ‘legal highs’, there has been little or no useful research into the short or long-term risks from human consumption. Drugs including ‘legal highs’ will have widely different strengths and effects on different people. You can become addicted too.
With illegal drugs, like cocaine, it is not unusual for the drug to be cut to add extra bulk so that the dealer can make more money.
However, when you buy ‘legal highs’, you can never be sure that what you are buying is what it is claimed to be either. Even if the packaging of a ‘legal high’ describes a list of ingredients, you cannot be sure that it contains the same substances.
Forensic testing of ‘legal highs’ has shown that they can contain different substances to those expected, or mixtures of different substances and even banned drugs which are illegal to possess. This means that you could end up taking a ‘legal high’ which has stronger or different effects and risks than you expected, or even be caught with an illegal drug.
Can you get addicted to ‘legal highs’?
‘Legal highs’ that have the same effects as addictive drugs like cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines can potentially get you hooked too.
Most stimulant and sedative drugs used recreationally have turned out to be addictive to some degree. So the regular use of ‘legal highs’, particularly those with sedative or stimulant effects, could potentially lead to a compulsion to use or even a risk of withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them.
Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking ‘downer’ type drugs. If a severe ‘downer’ withdrawal syndrome develops in a heavy drug userit can be particularly dangerous and the person affected may need medical treatment.
Are ‘legal highs’ illegal?
Just the fact that someone claims that a substance is “legal” doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. Possessing or supplying (includes giving to a friend) a ‘legal high’ that contains a banned drug is an offence.
There are many substances that were formally ‘legal highs’ that are now banned drugs in the UK.
‘Legal highs’ often contain more than one chemical, or not the same ingredients in samples of a same brand. So you cannot rely on a brand of ‘legal high’ that you or someone you know have used to be safe or legal because the actual contents can vary greatly. Basically, you can’t really be sure of what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends.
Did you know?
Like drink-driving, drug-driving including after using ‘legal highs’, is illegal because it puts your own and other people’s safety at risk on the roads – with some ‘legal highs’ you could still be unfit to drive after the day you have used them. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison for drug-driving.
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