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Stories about the dangers of of (il)legal highs may sell papers and drive parents’ blood pressure soaring, but there are lots of misconceptions surrounding these drugs.
There is now a law banning all non-exempt psychoactive substances, but the information below may still be useful to parents or carers, as well as schools who are concerned about these drugs.
Designer drugs? NPS? Legals? Synthetic drugs?
What are these substances?
NPS (formerly known as “legal highs”) are a group of drugs designed to bypass the former legislative controls of illegal drugs. They attempt to imitate the effects of illegal substances – stimulants, cannabis, depressants or hallucinogens – by either mimicking the pharmacological effects of a specific drug, or by subtly modifying the molecular structure of existing illegal drugs.
Only 2% of secondary school age pupils reported using NPS in the last year (NHS Digital).
Since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in May 2016, hundreds of ‘headshops’ where these substances were sold have closed, restricting the sale of these drugs. However, use remains problematic among vulnerable populations, including the homeless and those in prisons. Read more about the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act here.
About the Psychoactive Substances Act
The Psychoactive Substances Act came into force on 26 May 2016. The Act implemented a blanket ban on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) in the UK. Read about this new law here.
Busting the myths
Myth 1 – “These drugs are legal”
Medicines legislation exists to ensure that new chemicals can only be sold for human consumption once they have been clinically demonstrated to be safe. Suppliers of NPS avoided prosecution under this legislation by using descriptions such as ‘bath salts’, ‘plant food’ or ‘research chemicals’ and labelled them as being unsuitable for human consumption. When a new drug caused concern, the Home Secretary would invoke a temporary class drug order (an instant ban) lasting up to 12 months. These temporary bans made it illegal to supply drugs under these orders.
The rate at which new substances emerge on the market and the wide and unregulated availability of NPS (most of which can be easily purchased on the street, the internet, or in head shops) makes it very difficult to control the production methods or the exact chemicals contained in specific substances. To add another layer of complexity, many of the existing legal highs also contain illegal substances!
As of May 2016, these drugs are banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act. Even before this legislation was passed, however, there was no guarantee that the chemicals in so-called “legal highs” were actually legal.
Myth 2 – “If something is legal that means it’s safe”
The danger with NPS is there is no way to know what exactly is in the packet. Prior to the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act, the composition of these drugs was frequently changing in order to get around new temporary drug bans that come into law.
These chemicals have not gone through any tests to ensure they are safe for human consumption: that is why they are generally marketed as ‘plant food’ or ‘bath salts’. When a new drug comes on the market, no one is sure what the health risks are, but they are sometimes similar to illegal drugs whose chemical structure is closely related.
For example, some drugs similar to amphetamines can cause anxiety and paranoia, palpitations, and over-stimulation of the heart and nervous system which can lead to seizures. The chances of unpleasant side effects or serious health risks are increased if used with alcohol or other drugs.
The brand name or label is not necessarily a reliable guide to what chemical(s) a product contains. Two packets labelled “Benzo” may contain completely different substances of vastly different strengths. Users do not know what chemicals they are taking and if they do need medical treatment, hospitals find it difficult to find out what drug has been taken and how to treat the patient.
Johann Grundlingh, an A&E consultant and a spokesman for the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the BBC his members are still seeing the same number of people needing treatment because of former legal highs than before the ban.
“There is a new drug hitting the market about every week.
“So people are presenting with a myriad of signs that have not been seen before.
“It can be anything from feeling unwell, to mild confusion to the extremes like coma and, sometimes, even death.”
Myth 3 – “Lots of young people are taking these drugs”
As with any other behaviour, people’s decisions about substance use are influenced by what they believe is normal and accepted amongst their peer group. Research shows that young people consistently tend to overestimate both the prevalence of drug use and how acceptable others their age perceive it to be. This matters because perceptions of social norms can shape behaviour.
The latest figures from the 2016 EMCDDA Drug Report indicates that only 3% of young people aged 15-24 took NPS in the last year:
Tips for Parents
- Like any drug, it’s important to not scare your children with a barrage of horror stories. This tactic can make young people blasé about the dangers of substances. They believe that these horror scenarios will not happen to them.
- Start discussion early, and keep talking so it doesn’t suddenly come up as a big thing.
- Remind your child that, despite media stories, taking drugs is not the norm and most young people don’t think it is. Don’t echo messages in the media that overhype drug use among young people, since these can reinforce the idea that “everyone’s doing it”
- Find time to talk about all the big issues. Try to have family meals regularly: this is a crucial chance for parents and young people to talk. And that may include a discussion about drinking and drugs.
- Find out what your child’s school is doing about alcohol and drug education. Can you help reinforce knowledge, skills and attitudes?
- Remember: these drugs are now illegal thanks to the Psychoactive Substances Act. Make sure your child knows this and understands the legal consequences as well as the health risks of taking these drugs.
Why Not Find Out
Why Not Find Out is a website which provides information about NPS as well as their harms and history, legality and how to stay safe. WNFO was developed by The Angelus Foundation, which merged with Mentor in October 2016.
A brief history of NPS
Timed to coincide with the Psychoactive Substances Act coming into law, a new publication from DrugWise was produced to provide a brief history of legal highs, authored by Harry Shapiro (formerly of DrugScope): “NPS Come of Age: A UK overview”
What young people think
New research from Addaction reveals young people’s views on new psychoactive substances. Addaction commissioned this research in their role as a member of the Young People’s Health Partnership. Read the report here.