What are legal highs and why do people use them?

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Legal highs are compounds that produce similar psychoactive effects to those produced by their illegal counterparts, such as cannabis and ecstasy1. In recent years, there has been a rapid influx in the number of people taking legal highs, and consequently a rise in the number of call outs to emergency services to assist those who have experienced issues after using them. Spice is a particularly potent legal high that is thought to be up to ten times stronger than cannabis and has been known to cause severe vomiting, paranoia and seizures, and in some instances death2. The legal status of these drugs means that many potential users perceive them to be safe, but in fact little research has been carried out in order to assess the health implications of using these substances. Last year in the UK, 129 deaths were attributed to complications arising after the use of legal highs3.

Despite being ‘legal’, it is actually illegal to sell legal highs for human consumption. In order for retailers to continue selling them they are often sold in small packets as plant food or fertilizers under numerous different names, with packaging clearly stating that the contents are ‘not for human consumption’4. However, a recent documentary produced by BBC Scotland (The Deadly World of Legal Highs) highlighted that retailers often continue with the sale of legal highs, even after the consumer has explicitly stated their intention to consume the product.

Current legislation surrounding these compounds can be difficult to navigate, as each time a particular compound is banned, there are numerous other similar compounds produced which create the same psychoactive effects as the banned compound, but which are still legal. Talks are currently being held within parliament discussing the implementation of a blanket ban that would cover the chemical backbone of many substances used as legal highs, such that all compounds of this nature could be banned simultaneously as opposed to being banned separately as per the current system. An important point to consider is whether or not the problem of people using particularly dangerous legal highs will be solved by a blanket ban, or whether the problem will be amplified if the so-called ‘legal highs’ were to be made illegal.

Edited by Debbie Nicol



  1. http://www.talktofrank.com/news/what-are-legal-highs – Date accessed 23/10/2015.
  2. James Waterhouse – http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34552185/legal-highs-are-an-increasing-problem-for-paramedics-across-the-uk – Date accessed 23/10/2015.
  3. Dominic Casciani – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34611153 – Date accessed 23/10/2015
  4. http://www.talktofrank.com/drug/legal-highs – Date accessed 23/10/2015.

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