Legal highs warning to Christmas revellers

By on 15/12/2014 in News

Revellers in Birmingham have been warned not to ruin the festive season by taking so-called ‘legal highs’ this Christmas.

The warning comes after national figures showed the number of deaths associated with the use of ‘legal highs’ (or New Psychoactive Substances) increased from 12 in 2009 to 97 in 2012.

The CSJ also revealed that the number of people in treatment in England for taking legal highs has jumped by 216 per cent over the last five years, rising from 738 in 2009/10 to 2,339 last year.

Birmingham Public Health substance misuse expert Ricky Bhandal has warned users they are stepping into the unknown and today insisted: “You might want to have a good time with friends and colleagues but legal highs should not be part of your Christmas party plans.

“We know that just because something is legal that doesn’t mean it’s safe. If you’ve got a substance and you don’t know what it is, there’s a risk right there. People who are taking legal highs are really playing Russian Roulette with their lives, perhaps even more so if they take them with alcohol.”

While the current spotlight is on legal highs, Bhandal added: “Taking any drug is a risk and far more problems are caused in Birmingham by alcohol and illegal drug use. But, whatever the substance, if anyone in the city needs support, we’re here to help.”

The Birmingham Public Health Substance Misuse team works with partners across the city to provide treatment and services for people with drug and alcohol problems.

For information and advice about drug and alcohol treatment services in Birmingham, call free phone 0300 5555 999.

Notes to editors

What are ‘legal highs’?

‘Legal highs’ that are actually legal contain one or more chemical substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs (like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy). These new substances are not yet controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and there is often not enough research about them to know about their potency, adverse effects from human consumption, or when used with other substances or alcohol.

However, more and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what their dangers are and to see whether they should be made illegal. In fact, many substances that have been found in substances sold as ‘legal highs’ have already been made illegal.

‘Legal highs’ cannot be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as incense, salts or plant food to get round the law. The packaging may describe a list of ingredients but you cannot be sure that this is what the product will contain.

Just the fact that a substance is sold as ‘legal’ doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. You can’t really be sure of what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends. We know that many ‘legal highs’ are sold under brand names like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘Bliss’, ‘Mary Jane’ and have been directly linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services and, in some cases, deaths.

The main effects of almost all ‘psychoactive’ drugs, including ‘legal highs’, can be described using three main categories:

  • stimulants
  • ‘downers’ or sedatives
  • psychedelics or hallucinogens.

What are the risks of ‘legal highs’?

Just the fact that a substance is sold as ‘legal’ doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. You can’t really be sure of what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends.

Many of these risks are increased if the ‘legal high’ is combined with alcohol or with another psychoactive drug. There have been cases of death too.

The three main categories of drugs do not detail every reported risk of every single ‘legal high’. In fact, for many ‘legal highs’, there has been little or no useful research into the short or long-term risks from human consumption. Drugs including ‘legal highs’ will have widely different strengths and effects on different people. You can become addicted too.

  • Stimulant ‘legal highs’ which act like amphetamines (‘speed’, mephedrone, naphyrone), cocaine or ecstasy can make you feel overconfident and disinhibited, induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia, and even cause psychosis, which can lead you to put your own safety at risk. This type of drugs can put a strain on your heart and nervous system. They may give your immune system a battering so you might get more colds, flu and sore throats. You may feel quite low for a while after you’ve stopped using them.
  • ‘Downer’ or sedative ‘legal highs’ similar to cannabis, benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), or GHB/GBL, can reduce inhibitions and concentration, slow down your reactions and make you feel lethargic, forgetful or physically unsteady, placing you at risk of accidents. This type of drugs can also cause unconsciousness, coma and death, particularly when mixed with alcohol and/or with other ‘downer’ drugs. Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking ‘downers’, and if a severe withdrawal syndrome develops in heavy drug users, it can be particularly dangerous and may need medical treatment.
  • Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ which act like LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine and methoxetamine can cause confusion, panics and strong hallucinatory reactions (‘bad trips’), and their effects can make you behave erratically and put your own safety at serious risk – including from self-harm. Some psychedelic drugs create strong dissociative effects, which make you feel like your mind and body are separated. Both of which can interference with your judgement, which could put you at risk of acting carelessly or dangerously, and of hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.

Are ‘legal highs’ illegal?

Just the fact that someone claims that a substance is “legal†doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal. Possessing or supplying (includes giving to a friend) a ‘legal high’ that contains a banned drug is an offence.

There are many substances that were formerly ‘legal highs’ that are now banned drugs in the UK.

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