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What are legal highs?

The phrase legal highs gets bandied about all over the place. But what actually are they? And what are the different types?

The history of legal highs

Legal highs are substances that replicate the effect of illegal drugs. These substances aren't covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act so are legal to possess.

People have been taking natural legal highs for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Kratom was traditionally used by peasants to make their menial chores more interesting, and salvia leaves were chewed in traditional spiritual and healing ceremonies by Mazatec shamans in southern Mexico.

Clementine introduces a guide to legal highs and the law.

The history of synthetic legal highs is somewhat shorter. Headshops have been springing up in high streets over the last decade or so. They enjoyed a surge in popularity when a legal loophole allowed the sale of fresh, unprepared magic mushrooms. When the loophole was closed in 2005, headshops and legal highs were more known-about and demand grew. This resulted in a surge of interest in synthetic legal highs - chemicals that mimicked the highs of illegal drugs without the hassle of police-dodging.  

As the packaging and marketing of these legal highs improved, so did their strength. Pretty quickly, legal-high users could get a similar high to that of MDMA or cocaine but stay on the right side of the law.

Dr David Caldicott, an accident and emergency doctor who specialises in illicit drug use, says: "For a long time, legal highs and research chemicals were used by a small group of people.

"At first the sellers failed to recognise what a huge market there was. But now there's an amazing effort going in to pushing these substances and they're being marketed really well."

"Nature can actually really pack a punch into its products"

But the honeymoon period for synthetic legal highs was short-lived. Media reports connected legal highs such as mephedrone and GBL to several deaths in 2009 and 2010. This, in turn, led to a surge of people receiving hospital treatment after taking them - although Dr Caldicott believes the media were more responsible for this flux in numbers, rather than the drugs themselves.

"You have to be aware that the media has a big effect on the number of people turning up at the emergency department," he says.

"People taking legal highs were reading news reports about these drugs, taking them, and then getting anxious that they would have a similar response. So they'll come to hospital to check themselves out when they wouldn't have done before."

The media frenzy that ensued put pressure on the government to ban certain legal highs. And in April 2010 they did just that. Legal high makers started quickly tweaking the chemical compounds in their formulas to wiggle out of breaking the law. But the Home Office are planning to introduce new legislation to ban emerging legal highs for up to a year.

What are herbal or natural highs?

Don't be fooled by the packaging of certain legal highs claiming to be 'herbal' alternatives to illegal drugs. Here at The, we classify herbal highs as substances that occur in nature (like morning mlory), rather than chemical concoctions with a small herbal element. So plants and herbs like salvia and Hawaiian baby woodrose can be described as herbal highs because they grow naturally and aren't usually messed about with. They are often eaten, smoked, or made into some disgusting-tasting tea. The word herbal may lead you to assume the high is relatively mild, but nature can actually really pack a punch into its products - so be warned. Herbal highs can cause trips, rushes, and even full-blown hallucinations.

What are synthetic legal highs?

The truth? We're not absolutely sure. These are the legal highs that make the headlines, and, if media reports are to be believed, will cause you a horrible and untimely death. Their ability to kill you instantly may be a tad distorted, but ingesting a synthetic legal high isn't the safest recreational pastime. These are strong chemicals that have been crafted by clever science-types to be similar in chemical-makeup to illegal drugs. Mephedrone (meow meow), until it was banned, would be classed as a synthetic legal high. The problem is the compounds of these chemicals are continually changing to dodge government legislation. This means you're never really sure what you're taking, or if it's been tested for human consumption. Synthetic legal highs are likely to be branded differently and disguised as something other than a legal high, such as plant food or bath salts.

What are high-street highs?

Inventive high-hunters have discovered that massively overdosing on regular shop-bought products can provide an effective buzz. Drinking too much cough syrup or OD-ing on herbal Viagra pills have both been used as a means of getting off your face. Here at, we don't want to give you any ideas. Ignoring dosage information on medicine packets can be dangerous and potentially fatal. So, just because you can score it in Boots, doesn't assume it's safe if you disregard the recommended dosage.

Updated: 28/03/2012

Holly Thompson

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