Legal Highs - a few thoughts

Legal highs have been splashed all over the news recently, but what are they? Are they actually legal? Does that mean they are safe?

The expression ‘legal highs’ is not a new term, all it means is that the active compound in the drugs is not a controlled substance. Les Iverson, a retired pharmacology professor and chairman for the Government Advisory Council on the misuse of drugs recently presented a lecture titled, ‘Can we control legal highs?’ at the University of Aberdeen for the opening of the new Kosterlitz research centre. His definition for ‘Legal highs’ was, “[they are] defined as psychoactive substances obtained legally or by diversion from medical use [they], are not a new phenomenon. We are all aware of solvent misuse, nitrous oxide, party poppers and 'magic mushrooms'”.

The new wave of ‘Legal highs’ that have been plastered across the media over the past few months are mostly based on mimicking the effects of well known illegal drugs such as ecstasy. Some are herbal, which only means they are extracted from a plant, but many are drugs that have been synthesised in a laboratory (for example, K2 and spice, two cannabis alternatives which are purely synthetic). Because the compounds are different to the illegal drugs it makes the drug not illegal (although that does not mean the substances are legal).

There is a new system of a temporary 12 month ban on any new substance deemed as a ‘legal high’ but this seems to be a rather vague grey area (how do you define a ‘legal high’ ? What does a ‘ban’ mean?). Some drugs previously known as ‘legal highs’ are now definitely illegal, Mephadrone (also known as meow meow) was classified as a class B drug in April 2010 and Naphyrone (NRG-1) was classified as a class B drug in July 2010– along with some others.

As Les Iverson explained in his lecture, the problem with these types of substances is the speed at which they are becoming available. The majority of them are synthesised in a laboratory and no one can predict what effect these alien compounds will have in the body. Legal prescription drugs have to go through rigorous testing before they are deemed safe for use, this testing takes years and involves controlled human and animal trials. The drugs being sold as ‘legal highs’ have not been tested; they are created as alternate versions to illegal drugs. They are not legal drugs. Further, as with any  substance that is not regulated, you do not know what you are getting. The government is busy consulting and trying to work out the best way to control and classify these compounds over the next year new advice and information is expected to become available.

I wrote this article for the student newspaper, I had a few other thoughts on Legal Highs that I wanted to discuss.

Reporting on ‘legal highs’ in the media hasn’t been incredibly helpful or clear. I know reporters have taken legal highs to report on their effects (if anyone has the link to any of these articles it would be appreciated!). I don’t see this kind of reporting being helpful, it brings up the argument ‘because they have taken it, reported on it and survived does that mean it is OK?’

People are clearly curious about ‘legal highs’ (whether this is as a result of the press coverage of them or not is another debate), the website FRANK reported in February 2010 that 1 out of 5 of all visits to its website were to look up information on legal highs (80,000 hits in one month). I expect that these people didn’t only look at the FRANK website, but checked on other drugs websites and Internet forums where (as you would expect) the advice ranges from the sublime to the obscene. The government has launched an awareness campaign aimed at students (although I haven’t seen any evidence of this on my campus – also do they know that it is students that are mostly using these substances? Or is that a presumption?) . The campaign to me (as a student, in their target group) looks shocking. Even the Daily Mail ran a story on how rubbish people think it is. A lack of informative educational tools, clear advice and position on ‘legal highs’ from the government doesn’t make it any easier for people to understand and make up their own mind about legal highs. I think communication on drugs has many problems. It does have many limitations too, how do you educate people without increasing the interest and popularity of the drugs? I expect fewer people may take and be aware of ‘legal highs’ if they hadn’t been so widely covered in mainstream media.

Les Iverson did get asked during the lecture, could the government legalise some of the drugs? His reply was based around the funding for research on the drugs to ensure that they were safe for use (they would need to be treated the same as prescription drugs). Would the tax payer be keen on funding trials with these drugs for recreational use? I think not. There is also the cost to society involved with people taking recreational drugs. I am not against legalising currently illegal drugs and actually my view drifts over to the side of legalising some recreational drugs, however, I do understand the huge barriers as to why this doesn’t really seem to be an option for the government at the moment.

Going back to ‘legal highs’, in order for the government to have any kind of control over the situation, I think better classification is needed to allow differentiation between substances that are legal but abused as recreational drugs, drugs that have been deemed illegal and unsafe and drugs that are unknown. Education needs to be improved about drugs (and correctly targeted), I think proper definitions so people know where they stand would aid this. There are a lot of grey areas and there are definitely no right and wrong answers in this debate.


  1. Great synopsis! I look forward to future posts - they're far better than mine ;)

    You actually write like an educated person. I don't.

  2. I would argue that both "legal highs" and Illegal highs should be discussed in the context of harm. Harm to the person taking it and harm to society in general.
    The problem is people don;t seem to be able to have a sensible discussion about the legalisation and/or criminalisation of certain drugs. The mephedrone pa lava was pretty much a joke with bad reporting giving the impression that it contributed and/or lead to the death of a few people. This was found later to not be the case but the damage was done.
    Prof Nutt tried to show that our reaction to harm differs depending on what we are talking about and the politic behind it (Ecstasy and horse-riding have the same level of harm but one we legalise and one we don't). He was proved right when he lost his job because people took his thoughts way out of context.
    The economist has done a really good article on the arguments for and against legal and illegal highs and more specifically the legalisation of certain drugs, and when you look at it, drugs policy for the last 70years hasnt worked. A large proportion of People still take them. All good discussion points.
    Anyway, those are a few emotive points just to get you going for a wednesday morning :-)


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