Kira Weir: Dangers of legal highs often unknown

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It is very worrying that a woman has been the victim of knife crime at the hands of a teenager who experienced problematic use of so-called “legal highs” or new drugs. This incident reinforces the message that significant harm can arise through taking new drugs.

New drugs are usually “analogues” of existing designer drugs such as MDMA, cocaine or amphetamines. This means the structure is chemically altered to create a new substance which mimics the effects of these well-known substances while escaping the legal restrictions. As they are so new, they are generally untested with unknown or unpredictable effects. Reports of drug induced psychosis; strange behaviour and rapid dependency are not uncommon from those who work with people taking new drugs.

While such substances are sold in bright packaging with clever branding and disclaimers to allow sales, these “products” are not well regulated. Whilst marketing may indicate contents are legal, it is not uncommon for illegal substances to be found too. The mixture of substances found in some packets therefore makes it difficult for users to judge a safe dose, even for an experienced or regular user.

There is a misplaced perception that because these drugs are “legal” they are also safe. More education, particularly for young people, is needed to raise awareness of the risks involved in the use of mystery white powders or pills.

New models surrounding the control of emerging drugs should also be considered. For instance, in Wales a government-backed drug testing facility allows people to send in drugs for testing.

It will also be interesting to observe the outcomes of New Zealand’s efforts to regulate the sale of synthetic drugs. There, low risk substances produced by publicly listed drug manufacturers must now be clinically tested and sold by licensed vendors. These approaches should give users the power to make more informed choices about drug use.

We would like to advise those affected by the use of new drugs or “legal highs” to contact Crew. Anyone requiring information can visit our drop-in shop located at 32a Cockburn Street or can make use of our online chat room service available through www.mycrew.org.uk for impartial information and advice. As an organisation Crew does not condemn or condone drug use but seeks to provide relevant harm reduction advice.

• Kira Weir works for the Edinburgh-based drug information and advice charity Crew 2000