Overall drug deaths are going down, but latest figures reveal ‘Legal High’ related deaths are going up (from just five in 2009 to 43 in a year). We talk to the newest breed of users and dealers
“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 ‘Salvia’, a legal high she bought from Camden Market. It’s one of the most powerful natural hallucinogenics on the planet, despite the fact that it’s illegal to sell it for human consumption. “My flatmate 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 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 had previously no encounter with drugs, now sells balloons of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) at house parties. “I first got introduced to laughing gas at Brighton Pride, 2010,” she tells me. “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’”.
Realising how easy it would be to buy her own, Davina slipped into the role of dealer. “I bought the equipment for last New Years. I realised how cheap it was and it felt good”. Davina is never short of customers and at £2 a balloon, is quadrupling her profit. She has no qualms about joining this increasing trend of house party dealers. “To me it isn’t as dangerous as a ‘normal’ drug. It’s easy to get hold of, 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 whilst 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.
Francis, a London law graduate also told me how his recreational use of then-legal meow meow or mephedrone, lead 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. Then the money can be used to buy the next installment. 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 it’s their altered chemical structure that allows it to slip through legal loop-holes. For some users it makes them feel like they’re escaping the stigma of Class As, “When meow meow was legal everyone in my law class was taking it,” says would-be lawyer Francis.
Francis might be mistaken: drugs move quickly from legal to banned – meow meow and mexxy are both now Class B, with other drugs including Ivory Wave already 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 contain with titles like ‘Worst Salvia Trip Ever’, show people dangerously out of their minds. With legal high like bath salts sensationalised in the American news, reports that they made a guy eat a homeless man’s face, people are creating videos of their own ‘excited delirium’ to attract high views. The inability to predict how they will react to the unregulated drugs seems to be a big appeal behind their use and the act of recording it. It’s also worth pointing out that teachers have the power to search any students suspected of carrying legal highs. If your video is on YouTube, who knows who’ll see you?
Whilst drugs have always been a big part of youth culture, crazes in legal highs are muddying the legal risk that comes with drugs whilst rocketing the potential health risk. “The only reason they’re legal is because they are new substances for which we don’t yet have enough research about 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 have linked mephedrone to a massive 98 deaths.
It’s important to emphasise that the majority of young people don’t use drugs. But for those who do, the buzz around legal highs is not coming down anytime soon. Cheaper, accessible and with a high just as dangerous as the hard stuff- 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.