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.

People who buy and sell 'legal highs' are breaking the law. The results of taking them are very variable, and may, or may not, include a high.

Crucial: If a friend becomes ill after taking a substance, always tell the medical staff what they have taken. Provide a sample if you are able. Their life could depend on it.

What is a novel psychoactive substance?

Novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are new substances which have an effect on the brain. These effects may be similar to drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamine, or entirely new.

An 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 may be 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. There have been deaths and emergency admissions to hospital. Some are stronger and more dangerous than naturally occurring drugs.

In 2016, the UK Government passed the Psychoactive Substances Act. This 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 lots of Novel Psychoactive Substances. There are brand names and chemical names, like Dimethocaine, Benzo Fury, 5IAI, MDAT, Silver Bullet, Spice, NRG1, Synthetic Cannabinoids and Ivory Wave.

These drugs are very new. The risks are not fully understood yet. But just as for any drug, there are three kinds of immediate risk:

  • Immediate health risks (poisoning, sudden death, overdose, overheating, respiratory failure)
  • Mental health risks (from how taking the drug makes you feel, or how you feel after taking it)
  • Safety risks like dangerous behaviour, accidents, fights, risky sex and drowning

There may also be long-term effects. These are more likely if you take the psychoactive substance regularly or in large quantities. This can include changes to your mental health and function. This can include changes to 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.

Some substances have other effects when they mix with other drugs, in your body, including alcohol, energy drinks, prescription drugs and vaping. This animation shows how one of these dangerous interactions happens:

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.

Study drugs

Some drugs, including some novel psychoactive substances, are sold as study aids. Though some people claim that these boost alertness, mental function, focus or memory this is not supported by evidence. Find out more about misuse of prescription drugs.

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. 

Crucial: Negative health effects can happen even if you have taken a similar drug before.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous Oxide is a gas with legal uses. But taking it or selling it for psychoactive effect is not legal. It is also illegal to sell it to under 18s.

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

Find out more

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