Also Known As: New Psychoactive Substances, Silver Bullet, New Drugs, MDAT, Eric 3, Dimethocaine, Bath Salts, NPS, 5-IAI
Category: Depressant, Hallucinogen, Stimulant
New psychoactive substances, often known as so called ‘legal highs’, are substances designed to produce the same, or similar effects, to drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, but are structurally different enough to avoid being controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. 'Legal highs' cannot be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as bath salts, research chemicals, plant food or advertised as ‘not for human consumption’ to get round the law.
More and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what the dangers are and if they should be made illegal. Some drugs sold as ‘legal highs’ actually have been found to contain one or more substances that are, in fact, illegal.
Just the fact that a substance is sold as legal, doesn’t mean that it’s safe - you can’t really be sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you.
‘Legal highs’ are normally sold as powders, pills or capsules. The powders can range from white to brown to yellow in colour and from flour-like to little crystals in consistency. While the pills and capsules can range 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 or plant cuttings.
‘Legal highs’ tend to be snorted or swallowed, but there have been reports of some people injecting ‘legal highs’, which is extremely dangerous. 'Legal high' smoking mixtures are either smoked in a 'joint' or by using a pipe.
Because ‘legal highs’ include lots of different substances and what’s in them can change, often the immediate effects can vary. There is the possibility of accidental overdosing as the strength of some substances is unknown.
The main effects and risks of almost all ‘psychoactive’ drugs, including ‘legal highs’, can be described using three main categories:
- ‘downers’ or sedatives
- psychedelics or hallucinogens.
Whilst drugs in each of the categories will have similarities in the kinds of effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths.
- Stimulant ‘legal highs’ act like amphetamines (‘speed’), cocaine, or ecstasy, in that they can make you feel energised, physically active, fast-thinking, very chatty and euphoric.
- ‘Downer’ or sedative ‘legal highs’ act similar to benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), and like cannabis or GHB/GBL, in that they can make you feel euphoric, relaxed or sleepy and reduce inhibitions and concentration, making you feel forgetful, and can slow down your reactions.
- Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ act like LSD, magic mushrooms and ketamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). They can also induce feelings of euphoria, warmth, ‘enlightenment’ and being detached from the world around.
Just because you think a drug is legal to possess, it doesn’t mean it’s safe. You can’t really be sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you.
Short and long term:
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 its short or long term effects are likely to be 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.
Risks of ‘legal highs’ include reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, psychosis, hallucinations, coma and seizures. Many ‘legal highs’ have been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, deaths.
‘Legal Highs’ can have very different effects on users and risks and side effects are increased if used with alcohol or other drugs. One type of substance can also be much stronger than another (ten times stronger in some cases) and this has often led to accidental overdosing.
Stimulant ‘legal highs’ can make you overconfident and disinhibited, and can induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia and can even cause psychosis. They can put a strain on your heart and nervous system. They may give your immune system a battering so you might get more colds, flu and sore throats. You may feel quite low for a while after stopping using them.
‘Downers’ can make you feel lethargic, or forgetful, and can make you physically unsteady and at risk of accidents. They may cause unconsciousness, coma and death, particularly when mixed with alcohol and/or with other ‘downer’ drugs. Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking ‘downers’, and if a severe withdrawal syndrome develops in a heavy drug users, it can be particularly dangerous and may need medical treatment.
Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ can make you hallucinate. Some strong hallucinatory reactions (‘bad trips’) can lead to the person acting erratically, sometimes without regard to their safety. Some psychedelic drugs create strong dissociative effects, which make you feel like your mind and body are separated. Both of which can interfere with your judgement, which could put you at risk of acting carelessly, dangerously, or hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.
Injecting legal highs
Injecting any drug, including ‘legal highs’ – and sharing the equipment used for injecting, such as needles or syringes – runs the risk of the person injecting catching or spreading a virus, such as HIV or hepatitis C.
There is also the risk that veins may be damaged and that an abscess or blood clot may develop, which can cause further health problems, like infections and heart problems, possibly even a heart attack.
Most stimulant and sedative drugs used recreationally have turned out to be addictive to some degree. Hence, regular use of ‘legal highs’, particularly those with sedative or stimulant effects, might lead to a compulsion to use (and even a risk of withdrawal symptoms on stopping). Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking ‘downer’ type drugs and, if a severe withdrawal syndrome develops in a heavy drug user, it can be particularly dangerous and they may need medical treatment.
Many people in Scotland have been treated for the negative side effects of these drugs in the past year and advice from experts, users and professionals alike is to take care, think through your decision and make an informed choice about your health.
‘Legal highs’ are substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs but that are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Just the fact that a substance is sold as “legal”, doesn’t mean that it’s safe - regardless of any “brand name”, the actual contents can vary greatly and you can’t really be sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ or what effect it’s likely to have on you.
It is also likely that drugs sold as a ‘legal high’ may actually contain one or more substances that are actually illegal to possess. Being in possession of or supplying a controlled drug is an offence.
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.
A number of substances previously referred to as “legal highs” have now be banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, for example mephedrone and methoxetamine.
The UK Government introduced new powers, meaning they can place a temporary ban on any potentially harmful substance, while they await a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), an independent group of experts, on whether it should be permanently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is not illegal to possess a temporary class drug for personal use, but the police could confiscate it and destroy it. It is illegal to import, distribute and sell any drugs under a temporary class drug order, and anyone caught could be fined, sent to prison or both.
Learn more about drugs and the law.