Legal highs crackdown: how are the laws going to change?

May 29, 2015

Selling legal highs such as 'hippy crack' for human use will carry prison sentence of up to seven years

Legal highs will face a blanket ban under new legislation, with drug dealers risking a prison sentence of up to seven years. The new wide-ranging restrictions will include the sale of nitrous oxide – known as hippy crack – for human use. Previously shops and websites could escape liability by marketing mind-altering substances as "plant-food" or "bath salts" and adding a "not fit for human consumption" warning, while government attempted to block legal highs one by one as they emerged. Now ministers want to introduce an outright ban on the drugs.

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. 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.

How will the law change?

Previously, the law on legal highs took a substance-by-substance approach. Hundreds of individual drugs, such as mephedrone (meow meow), BZP and GBL, have been outlawed – but often new versions are created and sold just as fast as the government can ban them. For example, a total of 81 new psychoactive substances were reported in 2013, up from 73 the previous year.

The new Psychoactive Substances Bill will apply to "any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect" – effectively a blanket ban on legal highs. Home Office minister Mike Penning says the law will end the game of "cat and mouse" whereby the authorities are always trying to catch up with the drugs market. The new legislation is so wide-ranging that alcohol, tobacco and caffeine will have to be explicitly exempt. It will apply throughout the UK and enable authorities to seize and destroy legal highs, carry out searches, and issue prohibition orders on drug sellers. Possession for personal use will not be an offence, but those producing, distributing, selling or supplying new psychoactive substances could face up to seven years in jail.

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