As of the 26th of May 2016, new laws criminalising the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs have been introduced to the UK. Police will have the power to shut down any shops or online retailers who supply these products, seize and destroy any they find, and carry out searches on people, premises and vehicles.
Anyone who is caught breaking the new law will face a hefty seven years in prison under the Psychoactive Substances Act. Anyone who is already in prison and is caught using these highs will face having up to two years added to their sentence.
Otherwise known as psychoactive substances, legal highs are designed to give users the same effect as illegal drugs. One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding these chemicals is the incorrect assumption they’re perfectly safe to take because of their legal status.
However, as with any chemical, there’s a big risk associated with using them; last year, legal highs were linked to more than 100 deaths in the UK alone. They were also credited with being the cause of the rise in the number of violent assaults taking place in prisons.
Prior to the ban coming into force, the YMCA carried out a survey to analyse its potential impact. Their findings suggested that even though overall usage is likely to decrease, around two-thirds of young people who currently take them are likely to continue doing so in the future.
There are also concerns the ban will create the same problems as the likes of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin – it hands the trade to unscrupulous criminal gangs. There have already been warnings that making these substances illegal is highly likely to drive dealers to the ‘dark web’, which is also used to trade other drugs, guns and forged documents.
Others are, however, more positive about the ban. Simon Blackburn from the Local Government Association has described legal highs as being a ‘scourge on society’ and asserts that they ‘shatter lives’. He, along with many others, hope that the blanket ban will help to reduce the number of cases of anti-social behaviour linked to their use.
Legal highs and their effects
There are hundreds of different variations of legal highs but some of the most notorious names which have hit the headlines in recent years include:
Spice – this chemical replicates the effects of cannabis and is used widely in prisons across the UK. It has been known to cause paranoia, delirious ranting and hallucinations.
Laughing gas – otherwise known as nitrous oxide, this substance is sometimes used in hospitals under strict controls but when taken recreationally, it can be incredibly dangerous. It gives users a light-headed and euphoric feeling but this only lasts a matter of seconds and due to it depriving the body of oxygen, can be fatal when taken in excess.
Mephedrone – more commonly referred to as ‘meow meow’, this legal high hit the headlines in 2010 following a string of deaths. It works by mimicking the effects of substances such as speed and MDMA but it can have a deadly effect on the heart and central nervous system. It was deemed so dangerous that it was made illegal and classified a class B drug.
Legal highs have become popular in social settings and amongst those who feel they need help unwinding from the stresses of everyday life, but stimulant highs can be can induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia and psychosis.
‘Downers’ can make users feel lethargic, forgetful and even more prone to accidents because they can cause physical unsteadiness. When mixed with alcohol or other ‘downer’ drugs they may cause unconsciousness, coma or death.
What are the dangers of legal highs?
There is uncertainty about what’s in many legal highs, meaning people who use them do not know what it is they are putting into their body. This is dangerous in itself, but another problem this poses is that if a user has a reaction to something they’ve taken, paramedics have no idea what they’re treating or how to treat it.
Legal highs are a relatively new concept, so there is little-to-no research exploring the short, medium and long-term effects. However, it is increasingly clear that, contrary to popular belief, they are far from harmless and can have the same health risks as the likes of cocaine, ecstasy and speed. Users may experience reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, psychosis, hallucinations, coma and seizures. Many legal highs have also been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, death.
If you think that you or someone you know could have a problem with drugs, please feel free to visit our Drug Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation page for more information about the signs, symptoms and treatments that are available.