New drug-like substances that have been created and discovered are sometimes known as ‘legal highs.'
They are more accurately called novel psychoactive substances, which is sometimes shortened to NPS.
This is a better term for them, because people who buy and sell 'legal highs' are breaking the law; and the results of taking them are very variable, and may, or may not, include a high.
What is a novel psychoactive substance?
Novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are newly created or discovered substances which have an effect on the brain. These effects may be similar to drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamine, or entirely new.
A NPS is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but it is still illegal to sell, supply or advertise them as highs, or for human consumption. To get round this, they are sold as other things, like research chemicals, plant food, or bath crystals, and labelled ‘not for human consumption’.
Novel psychoactive substances are not subject to the same safety checks as other products for human consumption. There have been deaths and emergency admissions to hospital after taking novel psychoactive substances. Some seem to be even stronger and more dangerous than naturally occurring drugs.
In 2016, the UK Government passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, which makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export any substance intended for human consumption intended to produce a psychoactive effect.
Instant expert: The Psychoactive Substances Act makes it an offence to produce, supply, or offer to supply psychoactive substances, with a maximum sentence of 7 years’ imprisonment.
Risks of taking "Legal Highs"
There are a large number of Novel Psychoactive Substances and they can have all kinds of names, including both brand names and chemical names, for example: Dimethocaine, Benzo Fury, 5IAI, MDAT, Silver Bullet, Spice, NRG1, Synthetic Cannabinoids and Ivory Wave.
Because these drugs are very new, many of the risks are not well understood yet. But just as for any drug, you have three kinds of immediate risk:
- Immediate health risks, such as poisoning, sudden death, overdose, overheating and respiratory failure
- Risks to your mental health, either from how taking the drug makes you feel, or how you feel after taking the drug
- Risks to your safety, such as risky sex, dangerous behaviour, accidents, fights and drowning
There also may be long-term effects, especially if you take the psychoactive substance regularly or in large quantities. This can include changes to your mental function, including your emotions, understanding and memory, as well as dependence, drug-seeking behaviour and addiction.
Crucial: Addiction is not a problem for all people who take drugs, but everyone is potentially vulnerable, and your vulnerability can change over time. If you notice signs of addiction (taking the drug regularly, for example every weekend, making changes to your life to make sure you can get the drug, missing life, work or social activities because of the drug) the safest thing to do is to stop using the substance altogether.
There also are some specific problems with how novel psychoactive substances affect your body, particularly when mixed with other drugs, including alcohol.