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Guide to the Dangers of Legal Highs

May 24, 2016

For an appreciation of the scale of the threat posed by legal highs, we urge you to read new figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealing men in their 20s are most at risk of death due to taking legal highs. The ONS data reveals deaths linked to legal highs have more than tripled since 2009-2010. In 2007, only seven people died in England and Wales due to taking legal highs.

However, during 2013 - 2014 this figure stood at 76 deaths.  ONS data reveals the average age for deaths involving legal highs stands at 28 years old. This is around ten years younger than the average for illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  Since 2004, nine teenagers have died when taking legal highs.

Unfortunately, there is a common misconception amongst young people that legal highs are safe exactly because they are legal.

To change this misconception, this guide outlining the dangers of legal highs.  This guide is published on the eve before new legislation designed to crack down on legal high use is set to become law.

The history of legal highs

Legal highs appeared on the UK drug scene around 2007-2008. Mephedrone, a methcathinone similar to crystal meth, was the first legal high to be adopted by UK clubbers. The drug has subsequently been banned in 2010. However, 'herbal highs' hit the UK back in the 1990s. Unlike 'legal highs' of today, these 'herbal highs' were not produced through the tweaking of illegal chemicals in a laboratory. Even magic mushrooms were legal in the UK until they were banned in 2005.

How are legal highs consumed?

Legal highs may be taken orally, inhaled, injected, smoked or drunk.

What are legal highs?

Legal highs are also known as 'new psychoactive substances' (NPS). NPSs are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. Many of these drugs are classed as stimulants, psychedelics/hallucinogens and sedatives. Because legal highs cannot legally be sold for human consumption, legal high peddlers market their produce with labels such as 'plant food,' salts, incense and even pond cleaner.

Legal highs are typically sold as pills, capsules and powders. Powders may appear to be similar to flour or small crystals. Smoking mixtures are typically sold in colourful packaging, and are often marketed as incense to get around laws that prohibit their sale for human consumption.

Legal highs may be consumed in a variety of ways including smoking, snorting, swallowing and even injecting.

What are the effects of legal highs?

The effects of using legal highs depend on the type of legal high you consume. Broadly, there exists three categories of legal highs. This includes stimulants, psychedelics/hallucinogens and sedatives.

Legal highs classed as stimulants are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such ecstasy, amphetamines, and cocaine. These legal highs are known to leave you feeling energised and euphoric.

Legal highs classed as sedatives are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, GHB and benzodiazepines. These legal highs are known to make you feel relaxed and lower your inhibitions.

Legal highs classed as psychedelics/hallucinogens are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as ketamine, magic mushrooms, and LSD. These legal highs are capable of altering your perception. You may hallucinate and experience a feeling of euphoria.

Should I consume legal highs instead of their illegal equivalents?

The answer to this question is a resounding NO! As mentioned above, 76 people died through using legal highs during 2013 - 2014. It's essential you do not equate 'legal' with 'safe.' And because legal highs are relatively new chemicals, there exists no data on the medium-to-long term effects of taking these drugs.

Here's some of the side effects you may experience when you choose to take legal highs:

  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma
  • Seizure
  • Death

Legal highs are particularly dangerous when mixed with other substances such as alcohol. Furthermore, many legal highs sold in the United Kingdom are produced in Chinese factories where standards are poor. This means you do not know what is contained in legal highs. Studies have shown legal highs often contain illegal substances that cause a range of health problems when consumed in sufficient quantities.

What are the risks of using legal highs?

Below, we list the top five risks associated with legal high consumption. Some of these risks are short-term in nature, whilst others may only result from long-term legal high addiction. You are able to avoid all of these risks by avoiding legal highs entirely.

#1. You can never be sure precisely what substances legal highs contain

Legal highs pose several risks to human health. Most legal highs are less than five years old. This means there exists no information on the medium-to-long-term effects of their use. Legal highs are not allowed to be marketed 'for human consumption.' This means legal highs are not tested to the same standards as food and drink you buy at your local supermarket. Substances contained in legal highs could cause a number of long-term health problems including cancer, dementia and liver disease. Because of this, some experts claim it may be safer for people to take illegal drugs rather than to consume legal highs. Tweaking chemicals without doing tests on their effects is surely a recipe for disaster and contrasts to the vast amount of money spent by pharmaceutical companies when testing new drugs before they hit the market.

This ultimately means you can never be too sure what precisely legal high contain. Because of this uncertainty, if you require medical intervention due to legal high overdose, medics may struggle to apply the appropriate treatment needed to resuscitate you.

#2. You compound risks when you mix legal highs with alcohol or other drugs

If you mix legal highs with alcohol or other drugs, you place your health at significant risks. Prior cases of mixing alcohol/drugs with legal highs have resulted in breathing difficulties, coma and even death. This is particularly a risk if you suffer from asthma, high blood pressure, a heart condition or epilepsy.

#3. Since legal highs reduce inhibitions, you are likely to engage in risky activities

When you consume legal highs, you will likely feel less inhibited. This may encourage you to engage in risky or otherwise dangerous activities such as unsafe sex.

#4. Legal highs can lead to dehydration and over-heating

This is particularly a risk if you take legal highs and then dance for long periods of time. Ensure you take frequent breaks and ensure you consume enough water to reduce the risk of becoming dehydrated. We recommend you consume around one pint of water each hour. Also, consume a salty snack such as crisps or peanuts if available.

#5. Legal highs may result in long-term mental health problems

Studies suggest long-term use of legal highs may result in a range of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and memory loss. Legal high use may also cause a number of physical health problems such as kidney and liver damage. Furthermore, legal highs may contain other substances not declared on the packaging.  These substances may also result in mental and physical illness due to their harmful and potentially toxic properties.

#6. The dangerous of synthetic cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids include Spice, Black Magic and K2. This typically consists of legal herbs that have been sprayed with lab-tweaked versions of THC. However, these chemicals (such as JWH-018) are around 100 times more effective at binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain than unadulterated THC. This may mean synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to cause long-term depression and even psychosis compared to regular marijuana.

The legal status of legal highs

Legal highs emulate the chemical formula of illegal drugs. However, their formula is sufficiently dissimilar so as to not fall foul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, many legal highs have become illegal due to the dangers they pose to the public. This year, the British Parliament will pass the Psychoactive Substances Act due to kick in on May 26. This will outlaw all psychoactive substances with the exception of alcohol and caffeine.

From May 26, anyone who supplies or intends to supply psychoactive substances could face up to seven years in prison.

Getting medical help

If you suffer from breathing difficulties because you have consumed legal highs, we recommend you seek the assistance of your local A&E department without delay. Call 999 if you are in the United Kingdom. If you suffer from long-term addiction to legal highs, we recommend you contact our admissions team today on 01923 804 139 or contact your local GP.

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