“Legal highs” is a term – now out of date – for a very broad range of drugs more properly known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), which were formerly legal in the UK until a change in the law in 2016. NPS include smokable “synthetic cannabis” products, powders and crystals, tablets and capsules – whose ingredients could be any of a vast array of psychoactive chemicals, some of which have been developed only very recently, and many of which have had little or no research carried out into the long-term consequences for human health of their consumption.
Prior to 2016, NPSs – also known as “designer drugs” or “research chemicals” – were sold over the counter in many shops as well as being available over the internet, from stalls and by mail order, with little or no control over their distribution and consumption (other than that their sale to under 18’s was prohibited). Following rising concern over the health impact of some of these drugs, and several high-profile deaths which were associated with the consumption of “legal highs”, the government cracked down on this burgeoning market.
However, many NPS had by then established themselves as drugs of choice for a great many users, and today there is a significant black market in NPSs, with some of these drugs – especially synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Black Mamba – now causing significant harm and social disruption across the country.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was drawn up because of the ability of drug manufacturers around the world to make slight tweaks to existing chemicals which were being prohibited individually; the new drugs, with a very slightly different chemical formula, were not explicitly prohibited by law and could be sold on the open market.
The speed with which these new drugs were developed meant that little or no hard research could be done into their effects, giving rise to an extremely worrying situation whereby many thousands of people each week were taking drugs the long-term consequences of which were completely unknown.
Even now many of these substances are barely understood by the medical community, and although in the UK the change in the law has meant the incentive to continue to develop new substances has been reduced, internationally there are still many jurisdictions where that incentive is still relevant, meaning that new and potentially very dangerous psychoactive substances continue to come onto the market regularly.
With over 500 arrests made in the first six months after the change in the law, the desire on the part of the authorities to halt the boom was clear – and the consumption of many NPSs has decreased since the ban: in the first year after the new Act came into effect, the proportion of Britons consuming NPSs dropped from 0.7% to 0.4%.
However, the trade in some of the more popular formerly legal highs has merely been driven underground, and in the case of synthetic cannabinoids such as the highly addictive Spice consumption rates appear to have increased dramatically, with the drug wreaking havoc in towns and cities across the country (and reaching epidemic proportions in Britain’s prisons).
Because of the huge variety of drugs which came under the moniker of “legal highs”, it is simply impossible to provide a comprehensive description of their effects – or to do more than scratch the surface when attempting to list all the chemical and brand names involved. It is more sensible, perhaps, to divide NPSs into several categories representing the types of drug they have been designed to simulate.
Synthetic cannabinoids – such as the aforementioned Spice, Black Mamba and many more – are smokable products, resembling chopped plant matter, supposedly replicating the “high” of cannabis but in fact creating a range of effects, often much stronger than those of cannabis and occasionally being much more hallucinogenic or deliriant.
Hallucinogens – typically available in tablet or powder form – produce altered perceptions and hallucinations in the user, with effects typically lasting eight hours or more.
Stimulants – again often available as tablets or powders – can give the user greatly increased levels of energy, a sense of euphoria, an apparent intensity and clarity of perception, and frequently an enhanced libido.
Tranquilisers – most commonly found in tablet form – have sedative effects which may include a euphoric “high” and an enjoyable dreamlike state.
Again because of the huge diversity of NPSs, a comprehensive list of the signs and symptoms of their abuse is effectively impossible to produce. Some NPSs such as Spice have become notorious for producing a zombie-like state in their users, immediately obvious to the onlooker; the use of others, especially the milder stimulants or tranquilisers, may be effectively impossible to identify at all but the highest doses.
Again, because of the relative nascence of many of these drugs and the lack of research into their effects, the long-term consequences of the abuse of many NPSs remain unknown; many doctors fear that in years to come we will see a wave of unforeseen health problems resulting from the consumption of these untested substances. Already the NHS is admitting dozens of people each week for mental health issues related to the consumption of synthetic cannabinoids which appear to trigger psychosis, paranoia, anxiety disorders and a range of other psychological issues in some users, while other NPSs are believed to be a factor in the development of stimulant-induced psychotic disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder.
Aside from the health impact, the abuse of NPSs can have a catastrophic impact on a person’s financial well-being – due to the cost of the drugs and the negative consequences of drug abuse for their professional life; upon their relationships with others, including loved ones, who may find it difficult or impossible to tolerate their drug abuse, or who may be directly negatively affected by it in one way or another; and upon their life prospects in general, especially if they experience problems with police and/or the courts as a result of their involvement with these no-longer-legal highs
Once again, because of the sheer variety of NPSs it is impossible to describe a precise treatment regime which would be appropriate for every single case. However, residential rehabilitation – “rehab” – has long been established as the most successful long-term treatment for addiction of any kind. At rehab for legal high addiction, clients are able to receive treatment – including medically assisted detoxification (see below) and a broad range of therapies – in an attractive and calm environment in which they can concentrate wholly upon their recovery without the distractions and temptations of the outside world.
Therapy is crucial to getting to the bottom of the various causes of addiction, and to providing the addict with defence mechanisms allowing them to stay clean long-term and to avoid relapse. At rehab, an addict will have access to a variety of different therapy models including one-to-one and group therapy settings, to give them different perspectives on their experiences and choices, and with advice and support from others who have also gone through the nightmare of addiction.
Any addiction treatment needs to begin with a period of detoxification (“detox”) and withdrawal: while again the plethora of NPSs on the market means that identifying every relevant withdrawal symptom is effectively impossible, psychological addiction is commonly associated with a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms including extreme anxiety and irritability; insomnia; paranoia; and depression. In order to ensure the safety of an addict going through withdrawal, a medically assisted detox is always advisable. In rehab, a highly qualified medical team will be on hand 24/7, to make sure that the addict goes through detoxification and withdrawal as safely and as comfortably as possible. Detoxing from any substance alone can be extremely dangerous and it is vital that a GP and/or an addiction specialist is consulted before embarking upon any independent withdrawal.
Any regular viewer of the UK news over the past couple of years will have seen the terrible damage that some NPSs are doing on the streets of towns and cities across the country. Addiction to these drugs is ruining lives and creating a rapidly growing social crisis. If you are addicted to any former “legal high”, you are going through your own crisis – and you may feel that your own life is being ruined day by day. However, it is not too late to turn your life around and return to the path towards happiness and fulfilment. At Primrose Lodge our world-class medical team are waiting to get you back onto that path.
Call one of our addiction specialists today on 0203 553 9263