Legal highs: psychoactive substances linked to prison deaths

Jul 7, 2015

Use of legal highs fuelling debt and violence behind bars and becoming a source of ‘increasing concern'

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Legal highs have been linked to the deaths of almost 20 inmates as prisons struggle to deal with the surge in new psychoactive substances, says a report.

An official investigation by the prisons ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, revealed that at least 19 deaths between 2012 and 2014 were linked to legal highs, the BBC reports.

The report focused on the use of "Black Mamba" and "Spice" – synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of marijuana.

Prisons and probations ombudsman Newcomen warned that the use of these drugs was becoming a "source of increasing concern", fuelling problems of debt and intimidation behind bars.

The strength and effects of the substances are hard to predict, with legal highs causing erratic, violent and out of character behaviour in inmates. One prisoner suffered a heart attack, while another became seriously mentally ill and died after self-harming.

Some of the inmates affected are thought to have been given "spiked" cigarettes by other inmates to test the effects of the drug.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: "We take a zero-tolerance approach to all drugs, with a range of robust search and security measures to detect them." 

A blanket ban on legal highs is expected to be introduced later this year, legislation prison officials say will "further strengthen" their powers.

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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