Young People


  • What are ‘legal highs’?
  • What do they contain?
  • Are they safe?
  • Are ‘legal highs’ really legal?
  • Why take them? 
  • How can I say no?
  • Need help?

What are ‘legal highs’?

A drug is a substance which can change the way someone thinks feels or behaves. ‘Legal highs’ are drugs which act mainly on the central nervous system and affects how the brain works to reproduce the effects of illegal drugs like cocaine, ecstasy or cannabis.

Most substances are powders - colours vary from white to brown to yellow and either the consistency of flour or tiny crystals, pills, capsules or pellets which range in size, shape and colour. Some are made to look like cannabis and look natural, herbal. They’re often sold in brightly coloured packets looking like sweets. They can be sniffed, chewed, smoked, brewed and drank or swallowed.

‘Legal highs’ can be recognised by their brand name, their chemical name or their slang name and they are usually sedative (calming), stimulant (energising) or hallucinogenic (see, hear or feel things that aren’t real).

What do they contain?

Products on sale are described as research chemicals, plant food, incense, pond cleaner, room odoriser, cream dispenser refills or bath salts.

Packets generally have no ingredients listed and even if they do their contents vary. They often contain a mix of other chemicals and Class B drugs, whatever their brand name.

Are they safe?

Risks of ‘legal highs’ include drowsiness, being more reckless - less self-control, excited or paranoid states, coma, changes in the brains activity which can cause seizures, damage to the heart, and death. Many ‘legal highs’ have been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, death.

Calling them ‘legal highs’ can be misleading LEGAL DOES NOT = SAFE!

No-one can be sure what a ‘legal high’ contains; you can’t be sure what’s a safe amount to take or what effect it’ll have, the reaction can vary from one person to another.

Taking any drug involves some risk but hardly any research has been done on ‘legal highs’, most haven’t even been approved to be taken by humans, that’s why there’s little information available about their short or long term effects.

Manufacturers are constantly changing the chemicals in ‘legal highs’ to be a step ahead of the law. This means that different batches of a drug can contain different ingredients even though the packaging might look the same. The risk of permanent serious health problems like damage to the heart, other parts of the body, and death is increasing.

Some packets contain warnings:

These warnings don’t mean that they’re safe for over 18’s! Like any drug, legal or illegal, mixing with alcohol or other drugs increases the risks.

Are ‘legal highs’ really legal?

Although designed to copy the effects of illegal drugs, ‘legal highs’ are chemically different enough to avoid current medicines laws. These laws make it illegal to sell, supply or advertise ‘legal highs’ for ‘human consumption’.

Sellers refer to them as research chemicals, plant food, bath crystals or pond cleaner just so they can avoid the law.

‘Legal highs’ once tested are often found to contain illegal substances.

The government takes advice as to what substances might be considered to be a risk to users so that they can ban them but the problem is that manufacturers create a new ‘tweaked version’ which comes on sale almost immediately. This often creates a ‘black market’ for the original version.

Some substances previously sold as ‘legal highs’ like mephedrone (‘mcat’, ‘meow meow’) and smoking mixtures like ‘spice’ products (which imitate cannabis) have now been made illegal (Class B drugs) to possess or supply to others. The maximum penalties are up to 5 years in prison for possession and up to 14 years for supply and with an unlimited fine.

Over time as more substances are tested they will be banned too. GBL and BZP were previously known as ‘legal highs’ but they’ve now been made Class C drugs - maximum penalty is a prison sentence of up to 2 years for possession and up to 14 years for supply. Both these substances have been considered to be responsible for a number of deaths.

The police can arrest you if you are caught in possession of, or supplying a ‘legal high’ if they suspect it contains an illegal substance.

As many ‘legal highs’ can look very similar to illegal drugs, like ecstasy, cocaine and speed, if the police find a ‘legal high’ in your possession they are entitled to confiscate it for testing and to detain you for questioning, or even arrest you.

If you buy ‘legal highs’ and sell them to your friends this can be considered dealing and could result in a criminal record.

You can be fined, banned from driving or even go to prison if you drive while under the influence of drugs and that includes ‘legal highs. Sometimes, even the following day you might still be under the influence.

Schools and Universities have been given the power to confiscate, and dispose of any ‘legal highs’ that they find on their property.

Why take them?

‘Legal highs’ have become more widely available in recent years, for sale on the high street and on the internet and they’re relatively cheap too.

It appears that people are quick to trust products just because they’re sold as being legal, mistakenly believing that legal means safe. Also some people feel more comfortable buying ‘legal highs’ rather than other drugs because they don’t want to break the law.

Young people are naturally curious and want to experiment with different experiences. For some drugs are a good conversation point, they are interesting to talk about and fascinate everyone but despite how it might sometimes be represented in the media, there are actually more young people that choose not to take either legal or illegal drugs.

Some young people will use drugs as an escape to ease the ordeal and upset of unhappy relationships or the physical and emotional abuse in their home lives. More often than not this then brings added problems related to their drug use.

How can I say no?

Peer pressure can have the biggest impact on young people’s decisions to take drugs and take risks. Here are a few suggestions on how to stay cool with your friends and not take drugs:

Be selective - Choose your friends carefully; hang around with people you have something in common with that isn’t about taking drugs. If they’re pressuring you to do something that just doesn’t feel right for you then they’re not the right friends for you. Keep in mind that most people pushing you to take drugs will already be taking them themselves and they’ll only tell you the good side of what they’re doing and not give you the real facts.

Respect - It might be hard to actually say no but your self-esteem will improve if you stick to what instinctively you know is right, if your friends are genuine then they will respect you for it. Even if you don’t agree with some choices your friends make, if you respect their choice then there’s more chance that they’ll respect yours and they’ll not try and pressure you into doing stuff you don’t want to.

Do something about it - There are times when you might feel able to stand up for someone else and it might help you feel stronger about your own decision.

Distraction - Suggest doing something else, a game of footie, X-box or chill out with a movie. If your mates are under the influence of drugs they might not realise just how forceful they’re being, but it might also make it easier for you to pretend to pop to the toilet then leave instead, or just fake that you’re taking something.

Temptation - Sometimes the biggest pressure can come from ourselves, maybe stuff is going on at home or you have exams, changing school, starting university or a new job and you think that taking drugs will help you feel better and you’ll be more able to cope or more confident; the problem is that once you ‘come down’ from your ‘high’ things can often feel even worse than before so it really isn’t worth it.

Need help?

Most problems from the short-term use of legal highs will settle down with a little time out, taking in fluids (not coffee or alcohol) and fresh air. Sometimes the negative effects might last a few days before they wear off just like they would from the drug they’re imitating like say cocaine.

If you have concerns about health once you’ve stopped taking ‘legal highs’ it would be a good idea to visit your doctor and explain what’s worrying you.

There are lots of organisations that can provide you with advice, information, support, harm reduction, counselling and many other services if you or someone you know needs help with ‘legal highs’ or any other drugs

Try talking to your parents about your concerns, or click here to find some organisations you might find helpful.

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