Legal highs: what are the risks and why are they not banned?

A variety of pills and drugs

Government finalises plans to curb the availability of 'legal highs' after increase in UK deaths

LAST UPDATED AT 15:33 ON Mon 4 Aug 2014

Shops and UK-based websites that sell so-called "legal highs" could be closed down in the future as the government tries to tighten legislation. Norman Baker, the crime prevention minister, is leading an expert review into how the powers of police and trading standards officers can be strengthened to tackle the growing use of legal highs. Currently, traders can escape liability by marketing drugs as "plant-food" or "bath salts" and adding a "not fit for human consumption" warning. But The Times says Baker is looking into closing this legal loophole and is expected to meet with the Home Secretary in the coming weeks to finalise a package of legislative and education measures aimed at curbing the availability of legal highs.

So what are legal highs?

Officially known as "new psychoactive substances", legal highs are substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and speed, but have been tweaked at a molecular level to evade anti-drug laws. This means that they do not fall under  the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), that they are legal to possess or use and that they can be sold openly on websites or high streets across the UK. They cannot be sold for human consumption if they are unsafe but a legal loophole means they can be sold under the guise of something else, such as plant food or bath salts. However, buyers are often unaware that one in five "legal highs" contain an illegal substance, making the nickname somewhat misleading.

What are the dangers of legal highs?

Most legal highs have not been tested for human consumption so reactions are unpredictable. Risks include seizures, mental health issues, brain damage and heart problems, and the danger can increase if the drug is mixed with alcohol or other substances. The number of deaths linked to legal highs rose from ten in 2009 to 68 in 2012, according to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths. Just last month a man died from a heart attack in Manchester after taking a legal high called Eclipse, described online as herbal ecstasy.

Why not ban all legal highs?

Many drugs previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone (meow meow), BZP and GBL. But often new versions are created and sold just as fast as the government can ban them. A total of 81 new psychoactive substances were reported in 2013, up from 73 the previous year. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has been pushing for a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances, putting the responsibility onto retailers to prove that the products they are selling are safe. New Zealand introduced a law in May banning new synthetic drugs unless manufacturers send their products for clinical testing and prove that they are safe for consumption. However, The Guardian's Max Daly thinks UK politicians are unlikely to choose regulation over a ban as they do not want to come across as "soft" on drugs. "It's easier to play safe and talk tough than to take a political risk – even if that risk could save the lives of young people," he says.  

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