Legal Highs (Novel Psychoactive Substances)


Brief Description

  • Legal highs are chemical substances which can produce the same effects as drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
  • They are also known as Novel Psychoactive Substances or ‘NPS’
  • They are often designed to mimic class A drugs
  • They are predominantly made in laboratories, e.g. Mephedrone. (now a Class B drug)
  • Some are chemicals sprayed onto dry plant matter, e.g. synthetic cannabinoids.
  • See ‘tips’ at the bottom of this page if you choose to use, or click here for young people’s experiences in Belfast

Street Names

  • Many of the substances are trade names such as meow meow, herbal Viagra, eclipse, cloud 9 and liquid gold

How they work, what do they look like

  • The effect is dependent on the substance, but effects include feeling chilled out, relaxed, hyperactive, increased confidence, energy, talkative and giggly. Negative effects include paranoia, sleeplessness, psychosis, heart problems, aggression, overdose and in some cases, death
  • The ‘brand’ or graphic on packaging often give no indication of the effect you can expect: Head shops are not able (in law) to give any advice or harm reduction information.
  • They can come in the form of herbal mixtures, power, tablets or capsules.
  • Some, e.g. poppers / amyl-nitrite, are inhaled.
  • They can be smoked, inhaled, added to drinks and injected.

Legal Highs and the Law

  • Just because it is sold as legal does not necessarily mean it is legal, or that its safe to use.
  • Legal highs often contain more then one substance, so you can’t rely on what’s in it, even if you’ve had the same thing before.
  • If you are stopped by the police the substance will be automatically assumed to be ILLEGAL, confiscated and tested. If found to have any illegal substance within it, it could lead to a possible conviction.
  • Drug driving can now be tested by the road-side. New drug-driving laws make a conviction much more likely.
  • There are many substances that were legal highs that are now banned drugs in the UK.

The Harmful Effects

  • Most are not registered under the misuse of drugs act and as they are often freely available people think that they are safe.
  • Physical risks can include hypertension, heart disease, nosebleeds, weight loss, tremors and diabetes.
  • Psychological risks can include anxiety, panic attacks, memory loss, paranoia and even schizophrenia
  • If they are combined with other substances such as alcohol then this increases the risks.
  • With poppers

Top ten tips for safer use

1. Know the law

If the police search you and find a legal high, they are supposed to act like it is an illegal drug, arrest you and take you to the police station. If the legal high is tested and found to contain no illegal substance you will not be charged with any offence. About 1 in 10 legal highs have been found to contain illegal drugs.

2. Don’t trust suppliers

If the police search you and find a legal high, they are supposed to act like it is an illegal drug, arrest you and take you to the police station. If the legal high is tested and found to contain no illegal substance you will not be charged with any offence. About 1 in 10 legal highs have been found to contain illegal drugs.

3. Understand the risks

It says “Not for Human Consumption” on the packet because legal highs have never been tested on humans. It says “Harmful” on the packet because legal highs can make you very ill and have killed people. The deaths of over 100 people in the UK have now been linked to the former legal high Mephedrone. Mixing legal highs with other drugs and alcohol increases the risks

4. Do your research

Try and find out as much as you can about a legal high before you use it.; what are the effects; what are the risks likely to be; what dose do you take and how long does it last. Don’t use alone – it is safer to have somebody with you. Don’t use legal highs anywhere hazardous – like a riverbank or the side of a motorway – find a safe place. Eat at least an hour before you use. Have condoms handy – some legal highs can make some people very aroused. Don’t take a bath – people have drowned after falling asleep while high. Don’t drive.

5. Don’t be a ‘drug pig’

The most common mistake made is to underestimate the strength and take too much. Start with a test dose, a tiny line or a small pinch, err on the side of caution, you can always take more – but you can never take less! Some legal highs can take an hour before you get the full effect, while others come on in waves of intensity. Effects can last up to 12 hours or more and it can be days before you feel normal again.

6. Avoid heatstroke

Stimulant type legal highs can cause heart problems, raise blood pressure and lead to dangerous overheating. Heatstroke can kill – take regular sips of water especially if dancing (no more than a pint). If overheating – cool down any way you can; splash water on your face, remove clothes, go outside. If your urine is dark, you can’t pee or you stop sweating – ring an ambulance. Don’t share straws or tooters, chop powder as fine as possible; rinse your nose after use. Remember, “There is no such thing as a free ride” The come down is the price you pay for getting high.

7. Don’t use alone

Mind bending legal highs can have a range of effects, from distortions in the way you think, feel and experience the world around you – to full blown hallucinations. If you are going to take these types of legal high pick somewhere where you feel safe and can relax. It’s a good idea to have somebody stay ‘straight’ to calm and reassure you if needed and to stop you doing anything dangerous. If panic attacks or paranoia start. Try to stay calm. Slow your breathing down or breathe into a paper bag. Reassure and calm friends. Tell them that the experience is drug induced and will not last forever.

8. A pinch is enough

Synthetic cannabis is an ordinary plant sprayed with a chemical. A pinch of synthetic cannabis the size of a match head is an active dose. Some brands are stronger than others and are very different from real cannabis. Some brands are frighteningly strong, taking you to what feels like another reality. Synthetic cannabis can cause breathing difficulties, erratic heartbeat, severe rashes, vomiting and unconsciousness. If you experience any serious symptoms – try to stay calm and call an ambulance.

9. Look after your mates

It’s a good idea to talk through with friends what you would do in an emergency. Look after friends in the way you would want them to look after you. Calm and reassure anybody who is panicking or getting paranoid, take them somewhere quiet. If unconscious lay them on their side to stop them choking on their vomit (the recovery position) Call an ambulance, it may save their life.

10. Ask for help

Legal highs can be stronger and last longer than illegal drugs. They are as dangerous as illegal drugs – they may be even more dangerous.  We know nothing about the long term effects of using legal highs, nobody does as no one has ever used them long term, ever.  We know that some people start to use more and more, max out the credit card and wait outside for the head shop to open. They develop a legal high habit. If you are beginning to recognise or admit to yourself that your drug use is becoming a problem – Ask for help. There are free, confidential services in this area. Call CRI’s legal high helpline on 07793619993