Illegal Highs

Sometimes called a 'legal high', novel psychoactive substances are taken to change how you feel, like a drug - but risks are unpredictable, some are very strong or toxic, and they are illegal
Young people practising parkour in a park

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.

Mixing Drugs&Alcohol

Novel psychoactive substances and learning

Novel psychoactive substances, like cannabis and speed, can make it hard for you to learn. It is hard to learn when your mental function is changed, or when you are recovering from substance use.  But even at times when you are not using, substances can affect long and short-term memory, make it harder to concentrate, and decrease motivation. They also increase your risk of depression and disengagement.

Most learning environments and workplaces have rules which forbid the use of alcohol and drugs. This is to preserve health and promote safety.

Crucial: If any kind of drug, including smoking, drinking and legal highs, is making it hard for a you to continue with education, learning, training or an apprenticeship, then support is available.

Rules about novel psychoactive substances

Novel psychoactive substances often look identical to other drugs, but even where it is obvious (for example, it is still in a packet) it is still not safe for human consumption. Therefore:

  • Staff will confiscate and dispose of any legal highs in line with the organisation's policy on drugs.
  • Staff may search any students or clients suspected of carrying banned drugs.
  • Police may confiscate it for testing, detain you for questioning, or arrest you.

Why the concern?

At the moment, no-one knows yet what effects novel psychoactive substances could have on people’s mental and physical health. Although some people recover well from taking substances, others have suffered problems including:

  • Psychosis, or feeling like you're "going mad"
  • Panic attacks
  • Heart palpitations and heart strain
  • Overheating
  • Sudden death

As with other drugs, the risk is higher when the person  mixes the substance with other substances (including things like energy drinks, vaping and alcohol) or has taken a lot of a drug (either repeated doses, or a particularly strong dose).

As with an illegal drug, there is the added risk that the substance could be anything, mixed with anything, including substances that are harmful to health. 

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is a gas with several legal uses. But taking it or selling it for psychoactive effect is not legal under the Psychoactive Substances Act. It is also illegal to sell it to under 18s.

Also called ‘laughing gas’ or "hippy crack", Nitrous Oxide was a popular festival drug until greater awareness of the risks lead to it being widely banned.  

The risks are:

  • Increased risk of accidents, especially when combined with alcohol
  • Anaesthetic effect, so you can injure yourself without noticing
  • Fainting and Headache
  • Suffocation (when too much is used at once, it is not mixed with air, or it is taken in an enclosed space)

Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas, and contributes to global warming, so many people choose not to take it for environmental reasons.

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