Many people associate drug addiction with illegal substances such as heroine and cocaine. However, new research suggests that so-called 'legal highs' present their own serious dangers.
According to a recent report for the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, there has been a significant increase in the number of fatalities associated with these synthetic drugs, which are known as methcathinones. In 2010, 43 people died as a result of taking them, compared to just five in 2009. One of the drugs included in this group - Mephedrone, also known as 'meow meow' - was responsible for 29 of these deaths.
John Corkery, one of the report authors, noted that the figures coincided with a dip in deaths related to opiates such as heroin, suggesting that the drop could be due to the increased use of methcathinones.
"They were thought to be less dangerous as they were promoted as legal. Of course, legal does not mean safe," he told the BBC. "Mephedrone is still causing deaths in 2012, and new substances are being identified all the time. These drugs are not tested, we do not necessarily know what the effects will be," he concluded.
The International Centre for Drug Policy (ICDP), which compiled the report, warned that these formerly legal highs were "tightening their grip" on the recreational drug use scene throughout Europe but especially in the British Isles.
"It is now difficult to gauge with any certainty what will be the next 'big thing' that will capture the attention of the experimenter or regular recreational drug user," it warned.
These drugs carry a number of serious risks to the user. For one thing, when they are combined with alcohol or illegal substances (which is often the case among recreational users) it increases the risk of fatalities. Earlier this year, police in Scotland issued a warning against legal highs after the death of a 19-year-old festival goer. He was thought to have taken a substance known as 'benzo fury' and possibly have combined it with other drugs.
It is not often clear what chemical substances are contained in these products, making the results (and the risks) unpredictable. Side effects are often similar to those of other recreational drugs and can include drowsiness, feeling excited or paranoid and a lowering of one's inhibitions. More seriously, users can often end up falling into comas or suffering seizures and the results can be fatal.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of legal highs shows no signs of slowing down in Europe. According to the latest annual report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a record 57 new substances of this kind have been detected in 2012. These figures include the appearance of at least one new psychoactive drug on the market per week.
Part of the problem is that it is easier for users to get hold of these substances due to a rise in the number of online retailers. And the problem is even more serious in Britain, where ten per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds have tried a legal high at some point in their life, compared to a European average of just five per cent.