Legal highs: what are the risks and why aren't they banned?

Nov 23, 2015

Eton to sponsor a study examining what motivates young people to take the psychoactive substances


Eton College is funding research into why "legal highs" are so popular among teenagers in an effort to improve its drug education policy. 

The school warns that the drugs look set to become "a major challenge" for the education sector and that understanding adolescent motivation is key.

The school's deputy head and qualified neuropharmacologist, Dr Bob Stephenson, warned that some of the drugs could have a stronger psychoactive effect than Class A drugs like cocaine.

Teenagers are particularly at risk, because the drugs affect the parts of the brain that are still developing during adolescence, he told TES.

"From my point of view, the safer we can keep children the better, but in order to do that you have to get them to understand the risks better," said Dr Stephenson.

"It's no good frightening them – you've got to have messages that they will respond to from an intellectual point of view." 

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.

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.
In Depth