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Understanding the dangers of 'legal' highs

Legal highs and synthetic drugs have become more and more common, especially on the club scene and with young adults. The various new styles of drugs attempt to mimic the effects of illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis.

But what makes some of these new drugs ‘legal’, how popular are they and what harm can they really cause?

Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, discusses the matter.

The reality of synthetic drugs

Last year, 81 new psychoactive drugs were released onto the European drug market - more than one a week - and at least 60 deaths were attributed to synthetic drugs during 2013 in the UK. Synthetic drugs try to mimic the effects of illicit drugs, for example cocaine. Because these newly created drugs sit outside existing regulatory frameworks, in many cases they are sold legally. At the moment many can be bought online and delivered the next day by the postman – so unintentionally the postman has become the dealer!

But although these drugs may be technically legal, it does not mean that they are safe to use. In fact the reality is quite the opposite; many of these drugs are very powerful, with effects that are sometimes stronger than the drugs they are trying to mimic. An example is synthetic cannabinoids, chemicals that are made to act like the active part of cannabis, which can be several times stronger than herbal cannabis and much more likely to cause problems such as psychosis.

What about traditional club drugs – what damage can they cause?

Traditional club drugs, including MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine and mephedrone, were considered to cause low levels of harm until relatively recently. However, over the past few years, as their popularity increases, it is apparent that more and more people are experiencing significant harm.

Some club drugs are associated with unpredictable side effects:

  • Ketamine can damage the bladder so badly that some users require reconstructive bladder surgery
  • Mephedrone has been associated with serious psychotic symptoms
  • MDMA (ecstasy) may be the cause of persisting visual problems, sometimes called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)

We are still only beginning to understand the harm related to these new drugs and unfortunately, expect more unpleasant surprises.

If you are experiencing problems with the drugs mentioned above or know somebody who is, you can seek further guidance through websites such as Talk to Frank, DrugScope and AdFam. Priory also offer a a world-leading drug rehab programme which you can find out more about on our website.

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