Understanding Legal Highs & The Psychoactive Substances Act

August 12, 2016
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By 26th May 2016, it will be illegal to produce, supply or import any psychoactive substance if it’s probable that the substance will be misused.

In October 2011, after the troubling ascent of “legal highs”, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) wrote to the Home Secretary. They described how the arrival of legal highs had altered “the face of the drug scene” presenting new problems at an alarming rate.

In 2015 alone, 602 new legal highs were reported in the UK.

To combat the rise of these substances, a new Act, which was supposed to come into effect from April 2016 (but will now be enforced on 26th May 2016), makes legal highs, illegal.

This Act makes it an offence to produce or supply any substance meant for human consumption that could produce a psychoactive effect.

However, some worry that this Act is far too broad, that it has been drafted too quickly, and that it has not properly considered the recommendations of the ACMD or the effects that a similar Act had in Ireland.

What are Novel Psychoactive Substances?

Novel Psychoactive Substances (or NPS) are lab-made drugs created to have a similar effect to their parent compounds which are often controlled substances such as Ecstasy, Cocaine, LSD or Cannabis.

You probably know them as legal highs.

NPS have similar side effects to these illegal drugs, but because they are unknown, if something goes wrong it’s impossible for hospital staff to know how to react since they cannot know what you’ve taken or how to treat it.

Legal highs gained their hazy ‘legality’ only by manipulating legislation in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

By tinkering with the chemical structure of already-illegal drugs or known psychoactive substances, underground chemists create man-made drugs that elude classification and identification as their illegal brothers.

How do legal highs disguise themselves?down53

In the USA, when mephedrone (one of the most notorious and problematic substances of recent years) came onto the market it was sold as ‘bath salts’ that were ‘not for human consumption’ in an attempt to disguise its intent.The ‘bath salt’ description is a common guise for substances that attempt to skirt around government legislation, and it’s extremely common for a NPS to be marketed as ‘not for human consumption’.

There are many other veils that NPS hide behind too such as plant food, bath salts, herbal potpourri, room odorizer, incense, fish food and research chemicals amongst others that thinly conceal their real purpose.


NPS are sold as ‘branded’ drugs with names like clockwork orange (a man-made cannabinoid) and Benzo-fury (a stimulant that mimics other stimulant drugs like amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy).

Other popular branded NPS are sold as Spice, Black Mamba, Scooby Snax, Mad Hatter, Pink Panthers, Green Beans, China White, Exodus Damnation and Bromo-Dragonfly.

Common types of legal highs in the UKdown53

NPS that mimic cocaine or Amphetamine-like drugs: These are substances that are chemically different to cocaine and amphetamines, yet they induce the same effect by increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine or noradrenaline in the user. Before it was made illegal, the infamous Mephedrone fell into this category.

NPS that mimic the effects of LSD: These are synthetic drugs that derive from tryptamine. Two common types are AMT (alpha-methyltryptamine) and 5-MeO-DALT (5-methoxydiallytrypamine).

NPS that mimic illegal drugs such as PCP and Ketamine: These drugs are thought to be chemical variants of PCP and Ketamine, but there is no information regarded their chemical makeup. Experts state that it is likely that they share a similar psychotic and hallucinogenic effect to the controlled drugs from which they are derived and, therefore, possess similar consequences and health risks.

Other substances that are commonly misused include household solvents and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

What are the side effects of legal highs?down53

The reported side effects of various NPS are sickness, black-outs, anxiety, paranoid states, hallucinations, psychosis, nose bleeds, diarrhea, short-term memory loss, severe mood swings, panic, violence, confusion, and paranoia.NPS’s also put a strain on the heart and nervous system and like other drugs can be fatal.

Since NPS are made to mimic the effects of illegal drugs, they have similar side effects to these but with the potential for a whole host of unknown consequences. Using any NPS is like becoming a lab-rat for initial drug trials, and you can have no idea of the consequences.

How has the government responded to legal highs?down53

In order to make these substances illegal, each new one had to be rigorously tested by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) for harmful side effects.This process was long and laborious, and for each new substance that was banned hundreds more flooded onto the marketplace.

In order to combat how underground chemists circumnavigated the law, the government responded with the creation of this new Act (which is very similar to the problematic 2010 Act in Ireland, where police have found the Act near-enough unenforceable and drug use has risen).

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

This act places the onus on the producer and supplier of a potentially psychoactive substance to be sure of how the product will be used.

Exemptions to this Act include alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, medicinal products, and those illegal drugs which are already controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The Act defines NPS as “any substance which (a) is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and (b) is not an exempted substance.”

Sentences vary from 12 months to 2 years with a maximum penalty of 7 years. However, it is not an offence to be simply in possession of a NPS.

Is this legislation over-zealous?

The Act has been criticised as being a blanket ban to any substance with a potentially ‘psychoactive effect’ and, therefore, extremely difficult to enforce in practice due to problems with a lack of clarity in the legislation.

For instance, did you know that the oil of nutmeg is a psychoactive substance? It’s chemically akin to mescaline the drug used by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. The oil of the popular kitchen spice can produce convulsions, nausea, dehydration, palpitations, and hallucinogenic effects.

In order to combat the difficulties that the lack of clarity the Act has caused Irish police, a home office spokesperson has stated that “the Government is in the final stages of putting in place a programme of testing to demonstrate a substance’s psychoactivity prior to commencement of the Act.”

If this is true, and if a quick and reliable way of determining the psychoactivity of a substance is possible, then it would not only become easier to enforce the Act but also to prevent these substances from being imported into the UK.


Currently, NPS are imported and sold with the disclaimer that they are ‘not fit for human consumption’ to hide their purpose, usually alongside another statement that pretends the product is intended as ‘bath salts,’ ‘research chemicals’ or ‘plant food.’

These drugs are largely exported from China and then, they’re sold online or in shops in the UK. And there is currently no easy way to identify a substance’s potential to be psychoactive, which means it is a near enough impossible task for customs to identify legal highs.

The Act and the Gay Community

What’s more, under the new Act, poppers (a drug commonly used in the gay community to improve the quality and ease of anal sex) were included as a substance to be banned.

After public outcry in March of this year, poppers were ruled as exempt to the new legislation. This judgement came after an outcry from a former tory MP and concerns from the gay community.

The Gay Men’s Health Collective asserted that “a ban on poppers could increase the use of class A and B drugs as well as transmission of sexually transmitted infections.”

Former Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt stated “I use poppers. I out myself as a poppers user. And would be directly affected by this legislation. And I was astonished to find that it’s proposed they be banned and, frankly, so were very many gay men.”

These concerns led to Mike Penning, a Home Office minister writing in his formal recommendation that poppers be exempt as they have “a beneficial health and relationship effect in enabling anal sex for some men who have sex with men.”

If the impacts of this Act are similar to the Irish NPS Act, then the UK could see similar results with escalating drug use by young people and a police force who find that the law is unenforceable.

Only time will reveal the true toll of this Act, but early indicators suggest it is bad news for drug use in the UK.

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