Legal Highs (Novel psychoactive substances) are often misrepresented as ‘safe’ for recreational use but can prove as harmful as controlled drugs.
Novel (or new) psychoactive substances (NPS) are an ever-increasing group of synthetic, semi-synthetic or natural compounds, often advertised and sold as ‘legal’ alternatives to illicit drugs. Often misrepresented as ‘safe’ for recreational use, they can, however, prove as harmful as controlled drugs. Over the last decade, three European Commission funded projects – Psychonaut 2002, the Psychonaut Web Mapping System 2008-09 and ReDNet 2010-12 – have catalogued some 700 NPS and products allegedly containing them. Furthermore, the EU early-warning system, operated by the EMCDDA*, currently monitors over 300 new drugs.
The use of traditional drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, appears to be declining in some parts of the world, while the abuse of prescription drugs and new psychoactive substances is growing. This is according to the World Drug Report 2013, launched by UNODC on 26 June at a special high-level event of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.
Launching the report, UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov called for concerted action to prevent the manufacture, trafficking and abuse of NPS. The number of NPS reported by UN Member States rose by over 50% from 166 at the end of 2009 to 251 by mid-2012. For the first time, the number of substances reported exceeded the total number of substances under international control (234). The report describes how the international drug control system is now challenged by the speed and creativity of the NPS phenomenon.
What are ‘legal highs’?
‘Legal highs’ are substances which try to produce similar effects to illegal drugs (such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy) but that are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. These new substances are not yet controlled because there is not enough research about them to base a decision on. However, more and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what the dangers are and if they should be made illegal.
‘Legal highs’ cannot be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as “research chemicals”, bath salts or plant food to get around the law.
The main effects of almost all ‘psychoactive’ drugs, including ‘legal highs’, can be described using three main categories:
- ‘downers’ or sedatives
- psychedelics or hallucinogens.
Some drugs sold as ‘legal’ actually have been found to contain one or more substances that are, in fact, illegal.
Whilst drugs in each of the categories will have similarities in the kinds of effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths.
Stimulant ‘legal highs’ act like amphetamines (‘speed’), cocaine, or ecstasy, in that they can make you feel energised, physically active, fast-thinking, very chatty and euphoric. However, they can make you overconfident and disinhibited, and can induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia and can even cause psychosis.
‘Downer’ or sedative ‘legal highs’ act similar to benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), and like cannabis or GHB/GBL, in that they can make you feel euphoric, relaxed or sleepy and reduce inhibitions and concentration, making you feel forgetful, and can slow down your reactions.
Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ act like LSD, magic mushrooms and ketamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). They can also induce feelings of euphoria, warmth, ‘enlightenment’ and being detached from the world around.
However, they can cause confusion and panic. Some psychedelic drugs create strong dissociative effects, which make you feel like your mind and body are separated.
What are the risks of ‘legal highs’?
Just the fact that a substance is sold as legal to possess, doesn’t mean that it’s safe – you can’t really be sure what’s in a ‘legal high’ that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you. We know that the use of many current (and ex) ‘legal highs’, like mephedrone (meow-meow), Ivory Wave and 5-IT, have been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, deaths.
Whilst drugs in each of the categories will have similarities in the kinds of effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths. Also, these three categories do not detail every reported risk of every ‘legal high’. In fact, for many ‘legal highs’, there has been little or no useful research into the short or long-term effects in people.
Stimulant ‘legal highs’ act like amphetamines (‘speed’), cocaine, or ecstasy, in that they can make you overconfident and disinhibited, and can induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia and can even cause psychosis. They 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 stopping using them.
‘Downer’ or sedative ‘legal highs’ act similar to benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), and like cannabis or GHB/GBL, in that they can make you feel relaxed or sleepy and reduce concentration and slow down your reactions. ‘Downers’ can make you feel lethargic, or forgetful, and can make you physically unsteady and at risk of accidents. They may 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 a heavy drug users, it can be particularly dangerous and may need medical treatment.
Psychedelic or hallucinogenic ‘legal highs’ act like LSD, magic mushrooms and ketamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). Some strong hallucinatory reactions (‘bad trips’) can lead to the person acting erratically, sometimes without regard to their safety. 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.
Many of these risks are increased if the ‘legal high’ is combined with alcohol and/or with another psychoactive drug.
Are ‘legal highs’ illegal?
‘Legal highs’ are substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs but that are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
However, some drugs sold as ‘legal highs’ have been found to contain one or more substances that are, in fact, illegal. The truth is that you cannot be 100% sure what they will contain.
A number of substances previously referred to as “legal highs” have now be banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, for example mephedrone. Being in possession of or supplying a controlled drug is an offence.
Like drinking and driving, driving while under the influence of drugs, including ‘legal highs’ is illegal – with some ‘legal highs’ you could still be unfit to drive the day after using. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.
Why should we be concerned?
So what is this all about and should employers be concerned about their use and impact?
Any Drugs and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy should be an ever evolving document and process, and be reviewed regularly. It should address the issues of today. It should address the impact on the safety critical workforce from substances that can cause impairment. This includes “over the counter” and prescription medication as well as illegal drugs, alcohol and solvents. However, there is a relatively new risk that should also be included. That is the massive increase in the use of so-called “legal highs”.
Not only do these “legal highs” pose a huge risk to the health and welfare to the user, but the effects they have on the user will cause impairment in the immediate, short, medium and long term. This impairment may lead to fatal consequences. But the user may not be breaking the law.
So, how big is this emerging problem? Well, because these substances are currently classed as legal, it is a lot bigger than many might think. A simple search on the internet together with your credit card details and your “legal high” is delivered by Royal Mail the next day. Can’t wait until then? Not to worry, some websites will do a personal same day delivery. Failing that, pop into your local “headshop” and you can browse and get advice before making your purchase.
ScreenSafe has seen a dramatic rise in users of these “legal highs” with many enquiries asking about whether we can test for these substances, and whether they are covered under the “Drugs and Alcohol” policy. “Yes” we can test for them and “Yes” they need to be included in the Policy.
Alarmingly, it is curious “law abiding” persons who would not think about taking illegal drugs as well as the “traditional” user that are being targeted. This includes children of 12-13 right up to 55-60 year olds. Financially, this market place is immense, with some online vendors now reporting profits of £100,000 per week.
In 2009 (before it was made illegal), when a class of 30 children (aged 14-15) were asked by one of ScreenSafe’s trainers “Who has heard of a drug called Mephedrone” (street name Meow), almost all raised their hands. When asked if they knew of anyone who had tried this “legal high”, over 50% replied that they had, with 8 of the teenagers admitting they had tried it themselves. That equates to 37.5%! Translate that to the workforce, and I would suspect that the figure may not be that different. Seems a lot? Well, with an estimated 24% of the workforce regularly using illegal drugs, it only takes a few curious “law abiding” employees who would never think about taking illegal drugs to reach this estimate.
These “legal highs” are here and now. This is not a “might be”. This is not fiction. This is not an “underground” culture. This is mainstream, widely publicised and heavily marketed.
So what should we do now?
The Drug and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy is there to protect the employer, employees and members of the public who may come in contact with the company or it’s actions. While these “legal highs” remain legal, it can be slightly more complex and expensive to test employees for such substances. After all, there are other illegal substances that are often not included in the standard panel of drugs being tested for by employers either. However, ScreenSafe can offer a wide range of tests for a wide range of NPS (legal highs) including low-priced, simple to use urine “dip” tests for Synthetic Cannabis. An integral part to the Policy, testing is there as a tool to establish use and, where possible, at what level.
ScreenSafe also strongly believe that Training, Education and Awareness is key to the success of any Drug and Alcohol / Substance Abuse Policy. Our courses consistently receive very positive feedback, with many attendees citing the course as being invaluable not only as a manager, supervisor, contract head etc but also, and importantly, as a parent.
However, as stated above – policies need to be reviewed on a regular basis as the landscape is ever changing and evolving, to ensure they meet the current climate and requirements. Therefore, the training element is no exception. ScreenSafe have recognised this and have included “legal highs” as part of our new and improved DandA© course. We also include the topic in employee awareness seminars and are developing further techniques to test for these substances as they evolve.
Any training should also be integral to C.P.D. and add value to the person’s role. Training and education also needs to be ongoing and regular where appropriate.
With the widespread use of “legal highs” and the increased use of alcohol and illegal drugs, there is no better time to raise employee awareness through training, education, updating handouts, literature, policies and induction “tool box talks” etc.
The bottom line is that impairment through drugs, alcohol, substance use or “legal highs” kills. It can kill the user. It can kill persons / employees who come into contact with the user.
Preventing use in the first place will make for happier, safer and healthier employees. If we can do this for just one person, we have made a difference to them, their family, their social community, their employment community and wider communities.
As a responsible employer, you may have already recognised these risks and have put in place processes and methods to reduce these risks. ScreenSafe will continue to help improve these processes and methods and, in the first instance, look to do this via training and education followed up with specialist testing for drugs (including “legal highs”). Investment in people / employees now, via training, education, awareness and routine testing is dramatically less than the cost of a compensation claim or even worse, that of a life.
Together, we can make a difference.