Parents & Carers

What you need to know about 'legal highs'

  • What are ‘legal highs’?
  • What harm can they do?
  • How are they sold?
  • Why take them?
  • Help, what to say and how to say it?
  • Where can I get more help and support?


What are ‘legal highs’?

Until a couple of years ago ‘legal’ highs were generally mixtures of herbs that were smoked.  Others were minor stimulants with ingredients such as caffeine or ephedrine, but times have changed with a growing market for ‘party pills’, ‘designer drugs’ with effects that mimic illegal drugs.

‘Legal highs’ are new psychoactive substances, drugs known by a multitude of nick names, brand names or chemical names.  These new drugs act mostly on the central nervous system where they affect brain function, causing changes in mood, perception, consciousness, thinking and behavior.

Plant based ‘legal highs’ often referred to as ‘herbal highs’ implies something natural or herbal.  Products are plant/fungi or animal part/product, and mistakenly considered be less harmful than other drugs.  The reality can be quite the reverse as they could have been treated with dangerous chemicals with potentially serious side effects.

Synthetic ‘legal highs’ are often known as ‘designer drugs’ or ‘synthetic drugs’.  These substances are made by means of chemistry.  These drugs have been specifically created to avoid drug laws, usually by modifying the chemical structure of existing drugs, or by creating a new drug that can produce effects similar to illegal drugs but which can be sold legally.

What harm can they do?

Just because a substance is sold as legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. Drugs that are intended for human consumption such as prescription drugs are carefully tested to decide how they can be used safely.

Producers of ‘legal highs’ claim their products are not intended for human consumption so that they can be sold unregulated, so when someone takes the drug they are taking a real risk with their health.

‘Legal highs’ can be as deadly as Class A drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Reported effects of taking these mind altering substances include, drowsiness, being more reckless - less self-control, excited or paranoid states, coma, changes in the brains activity which can cause seizures, damage to the heart, and death. Risks are increased if used with alcohol or other drugs.

How are they sold?

Labelled as research chemicals, plant food, bath crystals or pond cleaner ‘legal highs’ generally carry the warning ‘not for human consumption’ to avoid regulation under the UK Medicines Act. A more accurate term perhaps would be ‘legal loophole drugs’. These substances are not declared ‘controlled drugs’ under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Producers of ‘legal highs’ often manufacture further untested versions or variations of their original product soon after they have been declared illegal. This makes it very difficult for the authorities to track and regulate the many different brands for sale. Once tested ‘legal highs’ are often found to contain illegal substances.

The internet has become an increasingly popular method for purchasing ‘legal highs’ by anyone with access to a debit or credit card. Once a purchase has been made it is delivered anonymously straight to someone’s home, often by the unsuspecting local postman.

There are more and more ‘head shops’ appearing on our high streets. Here ‘legal highs’ are sold alongside drug paraphernalia, bongs, hookah pipes, herbal incense, body jewellery art, music. Some head shops will at least try to ensure that they don’t sell to under 18’s by requesting ID. Reportedly some petrol stations, takeaway food shops and pet stores are also selling ‘legal highs’.

Legal highs’ which are purchased and then sold to friends can be considered dealing and could result in a criminal record. If a police officer that finds a young person is in possession of a powder, crystal or pill or any other substance that they can’t identify, they risk being arrested even if they are ‘legal highs’.

Why take them?

The low cost, availability, accessibility, mistaken belief that ‘legal highs’ are safe, and that buying and using them is not breaking the law increases their popularity.

Some young people might take ‘legal highs’ as part of a night out to fit in with their friends, or they might be naturally curious and want to experiment with different experiences looking for excitement and the thrill of risk taking. For some it’s to be rebellious, perhaps for a short-lived boost to their self-esteem, an escape to ease the ordeal and upset of unhappy relationships or the physical and emotional abuse in their home lives. Unfortunately taking ‘legal highs’ for any of these reasons can bring added consequences related to their drug use that they then have to deal with.

Help, what can I do?

Addiction problems can often start in adolescence when areas of the brain relating to impulse and motivation aren’t fully developed. However, lots of young people will only experiment with taking drugs and generally only for a relatively short time, that’s if they try them at all. Taking a ‘legal high’ doesn’t automatically mean that it will lead to someone becoming addicted or that if they are taking a drug you’re a bad parent. What does matter is how you handle it and how best you are able to communicate your concerns.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach or script when having a discussion about ‘legal highs’ but here are some suggestions you might like to consider:

  • Stay calm
    It might feel tough that it’s you’re the one that needs to talk to a young person about ‘legal highs’ and other drugs.  Getting irate or upset can hinder the chance of an open and honest discussion.  Pick your moment, preferably when they, and you, are feeling calm and not when they’ve arranged to go out or have friends round.

Bear in mind that there’s a chance that you might not be listened to, not because of what you’re saying, but because of what’s perceived to be your motivation for saying it.

  • Don’t try to be an expert
    When talking about ‘legal highs’ it isn’t necessary to have a vast amount of knowledge about them, just a basic knowledge will be sufficient to demonstrate your understanding of what it is that they’re taking. 

Prepare to focus on being open minded and not to judge, for them to feel that they know more than you could possibly imagine.  If you’re asked a question but don’t know the answer acknowledge that it’s a good question but one you hadn’t thought of and will try to find an answer to.

  • Avoid scare tactics
    Be honest, don’t exaggerate or play down the risks, stick to the facts.  People often want to focus on death when talking about drugs, however most young people’s view is that only old or very ill people die so consider discussing the possible effects on their life if their health were to be affected by taking a ‘legal high’.  Let them know that your main concern is for their safety

It might help to print the young persons leaflet (click here) from our site, or from or any other site that you think gives factual information about ‘legal highs’ to share with them.

  • Listen, let them talk too
    Their opinions might not be the same as yours but it will show willingness and understanding on your part if you’re prepared to listen and not jump in with your own opinion and assumptions every time you disagree.  Try not to be shocked or angry if they make wild statements and deliberately try to provoke a response from you, or equally if they’re completely honest and up front about taking a ‘legal high’ or other drug.

Rather than making a statement try sharing your knowledge by asking open questions, questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no - these often begin with ‘wh’ like why, where, who?  To help promote conversation it’s best to avoid closed questions - like “are you, do you, were you?”

  • Making an informed choice
    You’ve stayed calm, shared your knowledge, asked questions, listened, been patient and given reassurance and shown love and caring.  You know they now have the knowledge to make their decision an informed one.

All that’s left to do now is to offer to be there to talk to when they have any worries or concerns from this conversation or any others.

If despite all of the above you feel that you’ve not been listened to, don’t despair, without you or they realising you may well have laid the foundations for them to question their decision making process.

Where can we get more help and support? click here 



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