Neil McKeganey: Battle to beat appeal of ‘legal highs’

Legal highs have been associated with an increasing number of deaths in Scotland. Picture: Greg Macvean
Legal highs have been associated with an increasing number of deaths in Scotland. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Neil McKeganey says many of the people who use these drugs seem to be well aware of the dangers, but still they take them

Included within this week’s Queens Speech was a proposal to ban the sale of all legal high drugs. Because drugs legislation is a reserved matter, any such ban would extend to Scotland, for which we can be truly thankful, whatever one’s nationalist inclination.

So-called legal highs have been associated with an increasing number of deaths in Scotland and England and yet there is no sign of their appeal waning.

Mephedrone, one of the first legal highs to be banned, rapidly became the fourth most commonly used drug amongst young people in the UK.

The legal high drugs are substances that, until they are scheduled otherwise, sit outside the realm of many countries’ drug laws – mimicking the effect of many of the illegal drugs but remaining legal because of their slightly altered chemistry.

Spice, for example, is a form of synthetic cannabis, widely sold and cheaply priced, but thought to be a good deal more dangerous than the cannabis it mimics.

The existence of these drugs is testimony to an unfortunate marriage between rogue chemists and clever marketers. Often being labelled as “Not for Human Consumption”, though sold for that very purpose, these drugs are marketed with exotic names that tell you nothing of what the drugs contains.

This is drug-naming for the gaming generation, where the only limit is the marketers’ imagination – promising an exciting, exotic world as far from the humdrum reality of most people’s lives as it is possible to get.

The effects of these drugs on the users have been every bit as dramatic as their names suggest. In a legal high national online survey which we ran last year, 19 per cent of those who had used legal highs said they had often felt aggressive after using these drugs, 28 per cent said they often experienced heart palpitations, 21 per cent had been depressed and 20 per cent had experienced hallucinations.

If, after reading that list, you wonder what the appeal of these drugs can possibly be, some answer to that question may be found in the evidence that 22 per cent of users said they often felt a reduction in their inhibition after using legal highs, and 26 per cent said they often felt an improvement in their sex drive.

When it comes to choosing your favourite drug, it seems sex sells.

The fact that these drugs are associated with serious health harm may be worrying parents, health services and government ministers, but it is not a finding that will come as news to the users themselves. In the online survey we carried out, nearly a fifth of the users questioned said that they thought their favourite legal high carried a high risk of causing serious harm and nearly one in ten thought that their favourite drug could be fatal. If anybody thought that highlighting the risks of these drugs would be sufficient to discourage their use, think again.

Risk, it seems, is increasingly being seen as part and parcel of this new form of drug use, with many of the users seeing themselves as involved in some kind of human drug experiment in which their own bodies are viewed as a means of expanding their own drugs knowledge.

The harms of the legal high, though, go well beyond the health risks. Ordering these drugs over the internet could not be easier, but their pricing may be causing a problem much deeper than we have been aware of to date. The cost of buying these drugs in quantities of hundreds, in powder or tablet form, is often not that much more than buying them in the tens or twenties. As a result, some young people are ordering their legal highs in quantities that go well beyond what they could possibly consume themselves and, in turn, selling their unwanted supply on to friends and others.

As one police officer who we recently interviewed pointed out: “If you were a 14-year-old 20 years ago and you wanted to explore the world of illicit drugs, you had to make an association with someone who was a bit older, wiser and a bit more knowledgeable. Now that 14-year-old can see something on the computer and go from reading Harry Potter on Monday to being an NPS user and potentially a supplier by Friday.”

In the legal high national online survey, the top three sources for legal highs were “headshop”, friends and the internet, in that order.

Supplying legal highs in and through young people’s friendship networks is a real concern, with many young people engaging in a form of drug supply and drug dealing without even recognising what they are doing. Whether they see themselves as deliberately engaging in drug supply or not, many of the young people involved are likely to enjoy the financial benefits from this form of drug dealing, perhaps turning their attention in time to other drugs, and reaping larger rewards but running greater risks.

Closing down the high street shops selling legal highs will be a step in the right direction, but cracking the internet sale of these drugs will be much more difficult.

If we cannot stop legal highs being sold over the internet, we will have to be much more effective in stopping their distribution and delivery through the postal system.

This will mean much closer scrutiny of packages being mailed to the UK from countries where the drugs are being produced.

The legal high drugs may prove to be a genie that is extraordinarily difficult to get back into the bottle, but if we fail in that regard it is the hospitals and our mortuaries that will provide the testimony for our lack of success.

Neil McKeganey PhD is director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow.