Online And On Drugs: Legal Highs

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The availability of legal highs means you no longer need a dealer on speed dial – and with the drugs being so cheap, some people are selling what’s left.

Legal highs have changed the way people take drugs – and the type of people who take them. Take Jody, who decided she wanted to try some drugs, but didn’t know how to get hold of any weed. She went down to Camden Market to see if she could get some legal highs and came out with salvia, one of the most powerful natural hallucinogenics on the planet, despite the fact that it’s illegal to sell it for human consumption.

“I felt like a piece of wood and I ended up planking on the floor shouting ‘I’m a piece of wood!” the 20-year-old recalls, describing her first experience with a legal high. “My flat-mate was running around thinking she was going to die.” What followed was a 20-minute out-of-body experience and, crucially for her, a story to tell. “It was definitely a strange experience,” she admits, “but it’s fun because you’re with others. The way you feel is real, but you know that it will wear off.”

The communal aspect of drug taking plays a big part in the increased popularity of legal highs. Out in the open, accessible and cheap, legal highs are being used to enhance a range of social events regardless of the risks. Davina, 22, who’d previously had no encounter with drugs, now sells balloons of laughing gas at house parties. “I first got introduced to laughing gas at Brighton Pride, 2010,” she says. “We were sitting in this field and everyone was blowing these balloons. There were lots of police there and they didn’t say anything. I was thinking, ‘well if the police aren’t stopping them, there must be nothing wrong’.”

Festival goers with 'hippy crack' at Glastonbury.

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Laughing gas, more accurately known as nitrous oxide, is sold online at less than 50p a canister; not as a drug, though, which would be illegal, but sold for its original use, to create the necessary cold pressure to whip cream. The ‘high’ sensation you experience when inhaling it is the feeling of your brain temporarily being starved of oxygen and lasts all of 30 seconds. But being only a click away means that empty metal canisters now litter the floor of many house parties – despite recent deaths like 17-year-old Joseph Bennett, who died from a heart attack and severe brain damage after inhaling what he thought was laughing gas, but even tragically turned out to be hazardous gasses, highlighting the danger of taking unknown substances.

Seeing how easy it would be to buy her own laughing gas online, Davina slipped into the role of dealer. “I bought the equipment for last New Year’s. I realized how cheap it was and it felt good.” The ability to enhance the euphoria of a night out for just a just a few quid means that Davina is never short of customers and at £2 a balloon, is quadrupling her outlay. She has no qualms about joining the increasing trend of house party dealers. “To me it isn’t as dangerous as a ‘normal’ drug and it’s easy to get hold of. It’s not like illegal drugs where you have to know someone and deal with a middleman. I literally bought it online and watched YouTube videos on how to do it.” The reality is that while laughing gas isn’t illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is illegal to sell it for recreational use. The maximum sentence is two years in prison and an unlimited fine.

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Francis, a London law graduate, also told me how his recreational use of then-legal meow meow or mephedrone, led to him selling the legal drug for some extra cash to fund more drug buying. “I would buy it online, ten grams for £60. It lasted every weekend for four months,” he recalls. “It was disguised as plant fertiliser so it was quite exciting at the time. I would put it into smaller bags and sell a bit to friends, for profit on the side. Then the money can be used to buy the next instalment. Use your own high and get your money back,” he laughs.

Legal highs mimic the effects of controlled drugs like cocaine, speed and ecstasy, although their altered chemical structure allows them to slip through legal loopholes. For some users it makes them feel like they’re escaping the stigma of Class As, which is particularly attractive to users who’d otherwise avoid illegal substances for fear of how they might affect their career. “When meow meow was legal everyone in my law class was taking it,” says trainee lawyer Francis.

Drugs minister Norman Baker recently announced that “eighty-eight per cent of the legal highs associated with deaths, have already been controlled and are banned. So the phrase “legal highs” is a misnomer.” The most popular legal drugs, Meow meow, mexxy and ‘annihilation’ are now Class B, with other drugs including ‘ivory wave’ already being controlled as the substances in it are generally Class B drugs.

The negative side of legal highs is obvious to see. YouTube is filled with videos of people experimenting with legal highs, adding a new meaning to the term ‘social smoker’. Videos with titles like ‘Worst Salvia Trip Ever’ show people dangerously out of their minds. With bath salts sensationalised in the American news, including one news channel reporting that they made a guy eat a homeless man’s face. People are now creating videos of their own ‘excited delirium’ to attract high views. The inability to predict how people will react – and the possibility of getting a mad video recording out of it – seems to be a big part of the attraction. It’s also worth pointing out that teachers have the power to search any students suspected of carrying legal highs – and if your video is on YouTube, who knows who’ll see you?

Although Jody didn’t video her trip on salvia, she tends to bring it up in every conversation. “When we smoke it, you know it is going to end up being a good story and you are just waiting to see what happens next, although my flatmate is a bit wary of trying it again.”

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While drugs have always been a big part of youth culture, crazes in legal highs are muddying the legal risk that comes with dangerous substances, while rocketing the potential health risk. The death toll linked to legal highs stands at least 68 deaths in 2012 in the UK. A new study at St George’s University of London examined post mortem results linked to New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and reported that whilst legal highs can be dangerous on their own, such as mephedrone, in many cases, legal high deaths are due to a combination of other substances including alcohol but particularly stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy. This unfortunately was the case for Richard Phillips, 26, who became severely brain damaged after taking a cocktail of alcohol and the now banned N-Bomb, which triggered a series of fits.

Despite the increase knowledge around legal highs, they are still materialising at a rapid pace, with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction identifying 73 new substances in 2012 alone. “The only reason they are legal is because they are new substances for which we don’t yet have enough research to ban. However, because they have similar effects to illegal drugs like ecstasy they are likely to be harmful. More and more ‘legal highs’ are being researched to see what the dangers are and if they should be made illegal,” says a spokesperson from FRANK, the confidential drugs information service. “It’s important to remember that just because they are legal, it doesn’t mean that they are safe.” The recorded risks of legal highs include paranoia, coma, seizures and death. Scottish student Alex Heriot, 19, died at RockNess after taking speed-like ‘benzo fury’ and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has linked mephedrone to a massive 98 deaths.

Cheaper, accessible and with a high just as powerful as the hard stuff, the buzz around legal highs is not coming down anytime soon. So it’s up to you to remember that legal does not mean safe.

For friendly information and advice call FRANK for free and in confidence 24 hours a day on 0800 77 66 00 or visit www.talktofrank.com. You can also text FRANK a question to 82111. 

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