Sarah Harrison is an advanced paramedic for the North West Ambulance Service and says health workers are seeing an increase in people falling ill after taking legal highs.
Statistics support this, with the number of incidents involving legal highs more than doubling in two years. Due to the complex make-up of these substances, staff are often left playing ‘catch-up’ when it comes to developing effective treatments, says Sarah.
“We have no drugs that counteract the effects of the substances that people are taking, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the problems.
“A lot of the time we are not aware what substance they have taken and what combination, or even what the substance is because they come with different names and different street names.”
Sarah goes on to explain that medical staff like herself just have to treat the medical effects the patient is suffering with at the time.
So what exactly are ‘legal highs’?
Legal highs are designed to produce similar effects to illegal drugs like ecstasy and cocaine, but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. While they cannot technically be sold for human consumption, producers get around this by labelling them as ‘plant food’.
BBC Inside Out North West asked some biochemists from Liverpool John Moores University to analyse a selection of five brands of legal highs. These were marketed as: Cherry Bomb, Ching, Gogaine, Pandora’s Box Unleashed and Exodus Damnation.
In three of these drugs they found inconsistencies between the ingredients listed on the packet and what was contained in the product itself. In Ching for example, there was an illegal drug listed on the packet, even though the drug inside was legal.
Prof Harry Sumnall explains that this has implications for the retailer as you cannot pass something off as illegal, even if what you are selling is legal. He says that because of this, the individual selling the product could actually be arrested and charged. This shows how many retailers don’t actually know what they’re buying.
In this sample there were no traces of illegal drugs found, however Prof Sumnall says in previous tests illegal substances have been found.
The government has plans to make it an offence to produce, supply, import or export legal highs. Sarah believes it is unlikely that the use of legal highs will ever be adequately controlled.
“Because [the ingredients in the drugs] are changing all the time, I don’t think we can ever really get on top of it.
“I think the main message is to not take the substances in the first place.”