Government plan’s will see a crackdown on the availability of ‘legal highs’ after an increase of deaths in the UK.
Retailers and websites that sell “legal highs” could be forced to close as the government tries to tighten legislation.
Crime Prevention Minister, Norman Baker is leading an expert review into how the powers of the police and trading standards can be strengthened to tackle the growing use of legal highs.
These substances are designed to produce similar effects to illegal drugs but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Currently there are more than 100 known legal highs available on the market. Traders can escape liability by marketing these drugs as “plant-food” or “bath salts” and adding a “not fit for human consumption” warning.
The government estimates that nearly 700,000 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK have experimented with these substances.
So how are these drugs currently legal?
These substances are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and speed, but have been tweaked at a molecular level to evade anti-drug laws.
This means that they do not fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), that they are legal to possess or use and can be sold openly on websites or high streets across the UK.
They cannot be sold for human consumption if they are unsafe but a legal loophole means they can be sold under the guise of something else, such as plant food or bath salts.
These new substances are not yet controlled because there hasn’t been enough research on them to make a decision.
Temporary banning orders can be made for up to 12 months using a Temporary Control Drug Order (TCDO). Regulators can decide whether to permanently ban these substances during this time, but it can be argued that sufficient evidence cannot be gathered on these drugs in such a short period.
Jeremy Sare of the Angelus Foundation takes a look at the “legal high” go-gaine.
Clockwork Orange is also a popular novel psychoactive substance
What are the dangers of legal highs?
Despite these substances being sold as legal to possess – it doesn’t mean that they are safe.
You can’t be 100% sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or what effect it’s likely to have on you.
As most legal highs have not been tested for human consumption – the reactions are unpredictable.
Risks and side effects from these drugs include: seizures, mental health issues, brain damage, heart problems and even death.
The danger increases if the substances are mixed with alcohol or other chemicals.
Just last month, a man died from a heart attack in Manchester after taking a legal high called Eclipse, described online as herbal ecstasy.
Dr Ornella Corrazza has worked and researched in the field of addictive behaviours and substance abuse. She is author/co-author of thirteen books and many peer-reviewed publications and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She holds eight honorary visiting posts from British and foreign universities, where she lectures on a regular basis
Sophie Thompson took M-Kat when it was a legal high back in 2010. Despite it having a euphoric effect in her early stages of usage – she eventually ended up being hospitalised by the drug after three months. (We’ve given Sophie an alternative name to protect her identity)
“Initially, it was one of the best experiences of my life – it made me the life and soul of the party, fun to be around and you made loads of friends.”
“It then got to a stage where I couldn’t go out without it and I got really bad anxiety.”
“It got really bad; I stopped eating and went down to six-and-a-half stone.”
After being hospitalised because of the M-Kat on a night out, Sophie decided to stop using the substance.
“I can remember waking up in hospital and thinking: What have I done? I’ve never seen my family so upset.”
“It took me months to fully recover. After I left hospital I couldn’t walk for a while – I lost feelings in my arms and legs and couldn’t do anything – my whole nervous system collapsed.”
“The worse thing for me was the sleep paralysis – you’d fall asleep – and you know you’d be asleep but your dreams would come into reality – It is so frightening.”
“addictive as drugs like heroin and cocaine”
Sophie has since made a full recovery and M-Kat was banned shortly afterwards. Sophie is glad that M-Kat has now been prohibited.
“In years to come I believe that it’ll come out that M-Kat is addictive as drugs like heroin and cocaine, it’s so dangerous.”
Listen: Sophie recalls her time on mephodrone (M-Kat)
Why not ban all legal highs?
Some substances previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone (M-Kat) and gamma-butyrolactone (GBL).
However, new legal highs are created and sold just as fast as the government can ban them, and often only need a small tweak to get around the laws.
According to the The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), there were 81 new psychoactive substances reported in 2013, compared to 73 in 2012.
Toby Perkins, MP for Chesterfield, has been pushing for a review on the current laws surrounding legal highs and hopes for the sale of the substances to become prohibited.
“Legal highs are only called ‘legal’ because they haven’t been banned yet and people need to be aware that the name in no way indicates they are safe to use. People have been killed using these products and they continue to be a significant health risk.”
Mr Perkins would like to see the responsibility put onto retailers to prove that the products they are selling are safe.
Toby Perkins speaks about new proposals that would see the responsibility put onto retailers to prove that the products they are selling are safe.
A similar law has been introduced in New Zealand earlier this year, which bans new synthetic drugs unless manufacturers send their products for clinical testing and prove that they are safe for consumption.
Watch: Toby Perkins, MP for Chesterfield, shares some of his concerns regarding “legal highs” and his constituency
However, Sue Price – a politics professor at the University of Nottingham, who has written about drug policy, believes that the war on drugs and prohibitive policies on drugs has not worked and encourages people to use these substances.
“I think legal highs have become so attractive, especially to young people, because they do not face a criminal record if they are found in possession of having them. They can also buy them from the comfort of their own home without having to meet a dealer.”
“It does concern me that people are taking them as they do not know what they’re doing to their health.”
“Illegal drugs are probably safer than the ‘legal highs’ because we know a lot more about the illegal highs. If you go to hospital, overdosed on a so-called legal high – they (the hospital) will have absolutely no idea of what you’ve taken, because you don’t really know what you’ve taken.
“You could buy two substances which are packaged the same but have two entirely different chemicals. It’s much more risky.”
Politics Professor, Sue Pryce believes that prohibitive drug policies are to blame for the increased usage of “legal highs”
If you would like more information on ‘legal highs’ you can visit the following websites:
- Strange Molecules
- Angelus Foundation
- NHS Choices
- Parliamentary debate looking at “legal highs”
- Getting High Legally – a radio documentary looking into Novel Psychoactive Substances –