Advice Hub

June 13, 2011

Know the Score on Legal Highs

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Written by: Kyle Raffo
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‘Legal Highs’ are substances which produce the same, or similar effects, to drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.  They are however, considered illegal under current medicines legislation to sell, supply or advertise for “human consumption”. To get round this sellers refer to them as research chemicals, plant food, bath crystals or pond cleaner.

Organisations such as Crew 2000 (based in Scotland) often find that the drugs these products contain do not match the advertisements and this can lead to problems when these substances are taken. Sometimes the substances are in fact illegal when sold as branded products (i.e. Ivory Wave or such like) and there is no quality control or means of checking this out beforehand.

In many cases, ‘legal highs’ have been designed to mimic class A drugs, but are structurally different enough to avoid being classified as illegal substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

An example of this is mephedrone. The substance was created in a lab to mimic the effects of cocaine or ecstasy, but it had a slightly different chemical structure to both of these drugs so that it would not fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Subsequently the government passed legislation so that mephedrone became a controlled substance, meaning it’s now illegal to possess, give away or sell.

Why is there concern about ‘legal highs’?

All drugs whether legal or illegal have the potential to harm and this has to be borne in mind particularly when considering using substances branded as legal highs.

Just because a drug is legal to possess, it doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Side effects
‘Legal Highs’  can have profoundly different effects on users. The latest side effects from substances being sold as Ivory Wave have included psychosis, paranoia and hallucinations.  Other risks of ‘legal highs’ include reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, coma, seizures, and death.  These risks and side effects are increased if used with alcohol or other drugs.  Many people in Scotland have been treated for the negative side effects of these drugs in the past year and you should avoid using them.

Some of the negative effects mentioned above are due to the fact that one type of substance can be much stronger than another (ten time stronger in some cases) and this has very often led to accidental overdosing, as recently seen in accident and emergency departments around Scotland.

The unknown
There has been very little research into the short, medium and long term risks of the various ‘legal highs’. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are far from harmless and can have similar health risks to drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and speed.
One of the difficulties around legal highs is that we can’t say for certain what’s in the product. Even when we can, the chemical may not have been used for human consumption before and therefore we don’t know what the short or long term effects might be.  Advice from experts, users and professionals alike is to take care and think through your decision and make an informed choice about your health – know the score.

‘Legal Highs’ and the law

Under current guidance, teachers can confiscate, and dispose of, any ‘legal highs’ that they find on school property.

As many ‘legal highs’ can look very similar to illegal drugs, such as cocaine and speed, if the police find a ‘legal high’ in your possession they are entitled to confiscate it for testing and to detain you for questioning, or even arrest you.

It is also likely that drugs sold as a ‘legal high’ may actually contain one or more substances that are actually illegal to posses. What you may think is a legal high that you can’t get in trouble for having, could be something completely different, and in fact be a class B drug.

The future of ‘legal highs’

The Government have announced that they will introduce a new system of temporary bans on new ‘legal highs’ while the health issues can be considered by an independent group of experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).


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