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What are legal highs?

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

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Legal highs have caused a right media hoo-hah, with all sorts of rumours flying around. So TheSite.org went in search of the truth.

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Medical knowledge on legal highs is limited. Find out why.

Reducing the risks

If you're going to do drugs then first be aware of the risks involved.

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Does legal equal safe?

If a drug is legal, then surely it's safe? Not necessarily. In fact, law-dodging legal high manufacturers change the formulas so regularly that users could be putting themselves at risk.

What are legal highs?

Legal highs are substances that replicate the effect of illegal drugs. They can be herbal blends like salvia which gives users a quick LSD-type experience. Or they can be synthetic chemical-based drugs made to mimic stimulants like ecstasy, amphetamines or cocaine. But just because they're supposedly legal doesn't mean their effects are less strong than other street drugs. Not only can effects be potent and cause users to hallucinate, rush, or give them the energy to dance for 10 hours straight, but legal highs have also been linked to several deaths by the media.

TheSite.org caught up with some of you and asked for your views on legal highs.

So why are they legal?

The legislation surrounding drugs policy in Britain is a tad complex. The Misuse of Drugs Act determines what's legal and what isn't. A Home Office spokeswoman told us the act can only ban specific substances and chemical compounds, so anything it doesn't cover is therefore legal. But the Government has recently begun banning whole 'families' of different chemical compounds (for example, when mephedrone was banned, the ban included other, similar, types of drug). So just because a substance isn't specifically listed under the act doesn't  mean it's necessarily legal. Welcome to the confusing world of the UKs drug laws.

Synthetic legal highs have a very similar chemical makeup to illegal drugs. But brainiac chemists tweak the compounds and make tiny variations so they're not covered by the drugs act. And no sooner has the government caught up with one particular compound, the chemists get to work on creating a new one that is similar enough to create the same sort of effect, but chemically different enough to be legal.

James Brokenshire, minister for crime prevention, says: "The legal highs market is changing. Unscrupulous drug dealers constantly try to get around the law by peddling chemicals, which are often harmful, to young people."

The government tries to keep up with all these new 'brands' of legal highs, and from April 2010 made a lot of them illegal. But suppliers are speedy at inventing these different, but similar, chemicals to replace them, always staying one step ahead of the law.

Some substances or compounds aren't illegal to possess, but can't be sold for human consumption. Therefore drugs manufacturers cover themselves by simply writing "not for human consumption" on the label. Or they advertise them as something other than drugs - for example, mephedrone was sold as "plant food" when it was legal, and ivory wave is often disguised as bath salts.

What's the law?

Many previously legal highs now come under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This includes GBL, BZP, naphyrone and mephedrone, which was linked to several deaths in 2010.

"You don't know what you're buying, how much you should be taking or what the side effects might be."

In September 2010, the Home Office announced a plan to introduce new legislation to ban emerging legal highs for up to a year. This will give the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) time to review how harmful the drug is.

This new legislation would allow police to confiscate suspected substances. The penalty for supplying a temporarily banned drug is a maximum of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. Possession would not be considered a criminal offence.

Are legal highs safe?

No. Sorry. These drugs often haven't been tested for human consumption so users are effectively human guinea pigs. Just like illegal drugs, legal highs are not regulated. You don't know what you're buying, how much you should be taking or what the side effects might be.

Dr Phil Yates, a government forensic scientist, said: "If something's advertised as a legal high, people might think somehow the government have sanctioned that and so it's safe to take. Really, all it means is that nobody's tested it, nobody knows if it's safe. These are completely unknown quantities."

Because the chemical compositions of these drugs are continually changing, you never know what you're getting.  So your last trip on a synthetic legal high might have been fine, but that 'version' of the drug might have since been banned. Your next trip may be completely different and not as plain-sailing as you're experimenting with a brand new substance.

Plus, let's not forget, that anything that gets you off your face is likely to lead you to do things you wouldn't do sober.

What are the dangers then?

Besides the obvious danger of ingesting an uncontrolled and basically unknown chemical, you can be in legally shady waters when taking supposedly legal highs.

Tests on the substances often reveal them to still contain illegal substances like mephedrone or naphyrone.

Harry Shapiro, director of communications at Drugscope, said: "The truth of the matter is that you don't know what you are buying. It's not got any consumer quality control, there's not a reliable ingredients label.So people can be using a mephedrone substitute and think it's legal. But police could find it, test it, and say 'actually that is illegal', which would land you in trouble."

Updated: 28/03/2012

Holly Thompson


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