Illegal Highs

New drug-like substances are sometimes known as ‘legal highs.' But they are illegal and have serious health risks. People who buy and sell 'legal highs' are breaking the law.
Six young people sat in a field talking

The risks to health from novel psychoactive substances (NPS) can be very serious:

  • Psychosis (feeling like you are going mad);
  • Injury and accident; and 
  • Sudden death.

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, this is an emergency. 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 a drug-like effect on the brain. These effects may be similar to drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamine, or entirely new.

It is illegal to sell, supply or advertise NPS 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.

Instant expert: In 2016 the UK Government passed 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"

Novel Psychoactive Substances. such as synthetic cannabinoids and "spice" are new, and the risks are not fully understood yet.

But just as for any drug, there are three kinds of immediate risk:

  • Immediate health risks (like poisoning, sudden death, damage to organs)
  • Mental health risks (from how the drug makes you feel)
  • Safety risks like 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 emotions, understanding and memory, as well as dependence and addiction. 

Crucial: If you are worried about drug use (your own or someone else's) and live in Oxfordshire, you can get support from your School or College Health Nurse, or your GP

Dangers from mixing substances

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

Novel psychoactive substances and learning

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. 

Learning environments and workplaces typically ban the use of drugs and alcohol. So you are also at risk of losing your place in learning or employment.

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.

Prescription drugs

Some drugs provided as part of health treatments are misused. Taking a prescription drug not intended for you is very dangerous. Find out more about misuse of prescription drugs.

Why the concern?

No-one knows yet what effects novel psychoactive substances could have on health. Although some people seem to recover well, others have suffered serious problems:

  • 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).

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

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. 

Find out more

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