What’s a “Legal High”?

If you are not sure what a “legal high” is just click on this link and see what the Shiva Head Shop in Greenwich has to offer. You can order over the internet — in perfect legality — Snow Blow, Jungle High Energy Pills (“will bring out your wild side”), Party Pills, Happy Caps (“will have you grinning from ear to ear”) and Kratom which is a “highly potent stimulant” that they claim is “not for human consumption.”  

Legal Highs are cocktails of legal chemicals which imitate the effects of illegal narcotics.  They are the new generation of party drugs.  But they are very different to the illegal substances that everyone has heard of because they are constantly evolving — so they can always stay several steps ahead of the lawmakers.

Legal Highs were in the news last week when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) banned a drug with the street name of Mexxy (full name: Methoxetamine), a drug with similar properties to Ketamine.  The report issued by ACMD states that the drug has been under observation since 2010 but they only banned it for 12 months (while they study it some more).  Presumably the ban was rushed through because of the recent deaths of two people in Leicestershire, deaths that were attributed to Mexxy.

The banning of Mexxy is a good example of how the suppliers of Legal Highs manage to run rings around legislators in Britain and other EU Member states.  The suppliers know that governments take years to study the effects of drugs and so they continually change the ingredients. There are hundreds of chemicals that can be used as ingredients and thousands of different combinations.

Another unusual thing about Legal Highs is that nobody seems to know where they are made. Michael Bird, a documentary filmmaker who has been studying the issue, believes that “disillusioned scientists in UK and Holland make up the recipes, which they pass on to producers in China.”

Central Europe is often mentioned as a possible source of Legal Highs and one of the first developments in the sector was in 1974 when Hungarian chemist Kálmán Szendrei discovered the psychedelic properties of the “cathiones” class of drugs (from the khat plant). Poland is an example of a European country that has cracked down on suppliers of Legal Highs: last year the Polish authorities closed over 1,500 “head” shops that supplied Legal Highs.

Legal Highs are more widespread in Central Europe and important lessons can be learned by British authorities.  In the UK Legal Highs tend to be used by clubbers and people who want to experiment but in Romania, an EU Member State with a population of 20 million, traditional drugs such as heroin are in short supply and hard drug users are starting to use legal highs as a substitute.

Valentin Simionov, of Romania’s Harm Reduction Network, told me that “most injecting drug users in Bucharest are now shooting Legal Highs. Detox units and emergency rooms are filled with Legal High Users. One doctor told me he misses heroin users.”

Those working in the drugs-treatment sector say that Legal Highs are more dangerous than traditional drugs such as heroin because their composition is so unknown, making any kind of substitution treatment very risky.  By comparison, the various treatments for heroin addiction are well known.

Pasquale Policastro of the University of Szczecin in Poland summed up the difficulty for governments: “The development of legislation on new drugs requires a remarkable combination of different skills.”  Inputs from  physicians, pharmacologists, psychologists, pedagogy experts, police and social authorities — not to mention politicians — must be coordinated in order to get a coherent response to Legal Highs.


This article was requested by the Huffington Post UK where I have been blogging about addiction issues on behalf of the drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre whom I work for.

As always, I would really appreciate your comments — and the comments I get on this blog are about 1000% more interesting than the ones I get on HuffPost.

5 Responses to What’s a “Legal High”?

  1. Julian says:

    An interesting article, Rupert. Back in Bistrita, rather an “in the middle of nowhere” provincial town, drugs were readily available. So were prostitutes and, as one of my tourism clients discovered, the police were part of the supply chain. I wonder to what degree “law enforcement” is involved in drug supply?

    However the core of my comment is to ask you a question. You come from a nation where substance abuse is pretty central to the culture. Do you think that Romanians are driven by similar motives to the Scots (or indeed the British in general) when they take legal highs or illegal drugs? Are there lessons that flow both ways? What is wrong in society that people feel the need to take drugs? Why are they better than the alternative? (Like, say, palinca?) Yes, Britain can learn from Poland where that hard-line approach might just be a good thing. Can Romania learn from the social mistakes that we have made in the West? (Or will we simply blame Ceausescu for urbanising a population that is fundamentally rural in character?)

    I’m just back from the supermarket where (other than petrol queues) I noticed that the bargain wine shelf (half price or cheaper) was empty. No surprise there, then. The locals are enjoying their legal high. A pity that we can’t have a still in the garden, really, I do miss village palinca. Now that would subvert the Tesco monopoly.

  2. Interesting question Julian but I’m really not sure how to compare Romanian with British drinking habits. All I know is that most Romanians drink a lot less than most Brits I have come across; the binge drinking culture here isn’t very common — although I have come across a few alcoholics who are binge drunks

  3. Peter Fay says:

    I agree with you, Rupert.
    One of the many impressive things I found about Bucuresti and Romania was the way that the younger generation, like their elders can have great fun in bars without drinking excessively.
    This is the exact opposite of too many of the younger generation in the UK.
    I can also walk the streets at night alone in Romania feeling much safer than in my home town in England.
    When I first travelled to Romania, I read online about the beggars and the drug junkies. However, whilst I may have seen a few beggars, I have never been bothered by them. As for the junkies, they have been “somewhere else” both mentally and physically.
    Imi place Romania.

  4. Julian says:

    Peter – yes, I used to wax lyrical about the ‘many impressive things’ about Romania. I spent years talking up Romania to visitors from fifty countries. I could enlarge upon every good point and explain away every failing. Plus, if one has money it’s a great place to be eccentric. I used to love the lack of judgement of the odd things that foreigners get up to. Compared to that Britain is a dull finger-pointing place. As for trying to make money, I’d choose Britain every time. Unless, that is, one is working with some mafiot to sell gullible Romanians something they don’t really need: booze, imported white goods, consumer loans, etc. There was plenty of that going on.

    There is a lot of drinking in rural areas of Romania. In eight years four of my neighbours died from excessive drinking. There were several suicides too. The seedy side is something kept well away from tourists and foreigners. The fact that Romanians don’t seem to harbour the inner anger that makes some British drunks violent makes the cover-up easier. That lack of rage within is creditable – when, given the sad history of the country, one would expect deep and unrequited frustration. Anger seemed to be the preserve of the new rich and their spoilt brats.

    The fact is that every country has its dark side. Britain has (for example) excessive drinking, gambling and the behaviour of the financial sector. Romania has (again, for example) corruption, racism and a lack of national price of which chronic littering is a symptom. It’s more complex than the “Romania good – Britain bad” mantra that one hears from new emigres. The “Romaniacs”, we used to call them. I should know: I was one. If you want to know why I left, read: http://transylvanianhorseman.typepad.com/transylvanian_horseman/2008/03/the-end.html. The rest of the blog will tell you about my former life there – you will not find it a negative account.

  5. Erin says:

    Interesting article. Some of the legal highs on the market can offer some of the same relaxing qualities as medical marijuana, but the market of legal highs has become a very large and scary place. Its not just natural herbal smoking blends, now you have chemists making up synthetic and unsafe products for human consumption.

    Its important to start getting information out to the younger generation about what is considered safe and what is not. Kids are still going to try this stuff, it would be great if we could give them some knowledge before they start experimenting with so called legal substances.

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