Drugs have been a problem for centuries, but legal highs have turned the monster into a narcotics version of Lernaean Hydra. In Greek mythology, the serpent-like creature had many heads and when one was cut off, two more would grow in its place. The threat of legal highs is similarly unstoppable, as banning a drug provokes manufactures to produce several tweaked versions in its place.
Legal highs first became popular in 2009, when mephedrone became one of the most fashionable party drugs. The drug simulates the effects of MDMA but was made of new chemical compounds that weren’t technically illegal, and so carried none of the criminal risks. Mephedrone was banned a year later, but since then the race of creating and criminalizing new drugs has dramatically increased, with 350 legal highs having been banned by the coalition government.
Instead of just recreating the effects of party drugs, there are now legal equivalents of cannabis, tranquilizers and even opiates. They are often cheaper and easier to access than illegal versions, and are attractive to young people who don’t see themselves as drug takers – a recent survey found that one fifth of students who started university this year had tried some form of legal high.
But while legal highs won’t get you a criminal conviction, they can be as harmful as their illegal counterparts. “A lot of them are worse than the banned drugs and certainly with the synthetic cannabis products, there’s a lot of evidence that they’re hard more harmful for health that original cannabis,” says Dr Russell Newcombe, a specialist drugs researcher.
Drug-takers don’t know the purity of legal highs or what chemicals they’re mixed with, and the unknown substances can have extremely damaging effects. The number of deaths linked to the use of legal highs (including those that have since been made illegal) has increased eightfold in three years, from 12 people in 2009 to 97 people in 2012.