Legal Highs

What Are Legal Highs?

Legal highs, referred to as new psychoactive substances, are synthetic drugs manufactured to mimic the effects of other illicit drugs. These substances are made using a range of chemicals that are neither controlled nor tested for safety and are known to produce effects similar to those created by drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis and can be found in various forms, including powder, pills, capsules, liquids, smoking mixtures and perforated tabs.

These substances were marketed as ‘legal’ and sold online and in some shops, leading many to believe they were safe for human consumption. However, due to the regular change in chemicals used in these drugs, it is impossible to know exactly what they contain, meaning users are at risk of suffering adverse reactions. They are often sold as innocent-sounding products, with most labelled as potpourri or incense, synthetic marijuana, bath salts, plant food or jewellery cleaner.

What is Legal High Addiction?

Legal high addiction has become extremely prevalent within our society, and this is due in part to how easy they are to procure compared to other illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

These substances are now widely accessible, even following the New Psychoactive Substances Act introduced in 2016. Not only are these drugs designed to mimic the effects of their illegal counterparts, but they also cost much less. Their low price and accessibility mean they are widely abused and therefore highly addictive.

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Types of Legal Highs

There is often a great deal of confusion around how legal highs can be sold in plain sight and so easily obtainable. This is because new psychoactive substances are labelled “not for human consumption” which means they are not subject to any of the legal regulations that apply to most drugs, despite being far more potent. Some legal highs are marketed and sold as other drugs such as mephedrone, however, it is still impossible to know exactly which chemicals they contain. 

Legal highs fall into one of the following categories: 

Synthetic cannabinoids: Spice and Black Mamba are types of synthetic cannabinoids, and are made to resembles plant matter, which leads people to believe these substances are similar to cannabis as they are designed to replicate its high. However, synthetic cannabinoids produce a range of unpleasant side effects, often much stronger than those of naturally occurring cannabis.

Hallucinogens: Salvia and Benzo Fury are typically available in tablet or powder form and produce similar effects to LSD, magic mushrooms, and ketamine typically lasting for around eight hours. These substances can create altered perceptions, cause hallucinations, and induce feelings of euphoria. 

Stimulants: Mephedrone, Miaow Miaow, M-Cat, Bubble, Flakka are synthetic stimulants often available as tablets or powders and produce increased levels of energy and libido as well as a and a sense of euphoria. 

Tranquilisers: GBH and methoxetamine are known to produce tranquilising effects and are most commonly found as tablets that put users into an enjoyable dreamlike state.

Symptoms of Legal High Addiction

There are so many different types of legal highs available with each one producing its addiction symptoms. However, due to the nature in which these drugs are manufactured, it is difficult to pinpoint specific effects for each one. This is because the ingredients in legal highs are not controlled and recipes change constantly as manufacturers find more ways to make a profit. This is done by cutting synthetic substances with other harmful chemicals, many of which are unknown. However, general legal high symptoms include a wide range of physical, behavioural and psychological and include any of the following:  

Psychological symptoms of new psychoactive and illicit substance (‘legal high’) addiction can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Sedation or frequent drowsiness 
  • Mood swings and hostility
  • Noticeable personality changes
  • Panic attacks
  • Confusion 
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • A distorted sense of reality and perception
  • Detachment from reality 
  • Poor judgement
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Consuming so-called ‘legal highs’ as a form of stress relief
  • Exacerbation of any existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress

Behavioural and social symptoms of legal high addiction:

  • Spending an increasing amount of time obtaining, using, and attempting to recover from the effects of your ‘legal high’ misuse
  • Prioritising legal highs over responsibilities
  • Lack of control over your life
  • Inability to stop using legal highs even if you want to 
  • Becoming defensive and secretive when questioned 
  • A lack of inhibitions and engaging in risky behaviour
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Downplaying the extent of your drug use
  • Inability to function effectively 
  • Poor performance or attendance at work
  • Poor hygiene and unkempt appearance 

Physical symptoms of legal high addiction can include:

  • Tolerance 
  • Intense cravings 
  • High body temperature
  • Hyperthermia 
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Slurred speech
  • Co-ordination problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drastic weight loss or weight gain

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Legal Highs Withdrawal Symptoms

Continued use of any substance can result in the body developing a tolerance, which in turn leads to withdrawal symptoms once it is no longer present. However, due to the significant amount of new psychoactive drugs on the market, identifying withdrawal symptoms for each one is impossible due to the ever-changing chemical makeup of these drugs.

Physical withdrawal symptoms can range from excessive sweating and insomnia to seizures and coma.

The psychological aspects of legal high withdrawal are far easier to identify, with people reporting unpleasant withdrawal symptoms including anxiety and irritability, insomnia, paranoia and depression.

Legal Highs and Overdose 

Many people mistakenly believe that synthetic substances aren’t as dangerous as other drugs. Not only is this untrue, but it is also extremely dangerous. Synthetic drugs are often far more potent than regular illicit drugs and often require lower doses to achieve the desired effect. However, many people are unaware of this and often take larger doses to begin with. Doing so significantly increases the risk of suffering a fatal overdose.

Legal Highs are especially problematic to treat because their contents will vary depending on where they have been manufactured. This makes it extremely difficult for medical professionals to provide the correct treatment. If you believe that you or someone you know may be experiencing an overdose to legal highs, you must contact the emergency services immediately. 

Legal Highs and Alcohol: What Are the Risks?

Any risks associated with the use of legal highs are amplified when they are mixed with central nervous system depressants such as alcohol. Because there is no way of accurately knowing what these drugs contain, combining them with alcohol reactions could be as severe as seizures, coma and even death.

Legal highs are known for being incredibly potent. To lower the risk of harm to yourself and others, you should avoid mixing them with other substances and take small amounts to avoid accidental overdose. 


Legal Highs Addiction Treatment

Many people question whether addiction to legal highs requires treatment. This is possibly due to the inaccuracies surrounding its legality and potential to cause harm.

Despite their misleading name, legal highs are still illegal and can be extremely dangerous. Addiction to these drugs still requires treatment in the same way as other abused substances. 

Inpatient treatment

Inpatient treatment involves a residential stay at a rehab facility for the duration of your programme. This is considered the most effective form of legal high addiction treatment because your access to drugs is completely removed, allowing you to focus solely on your recovery.

Inpatient treatment typically involves a combination of medical detox and various therapies designed to help treat the psychological aspects of addiction and address any possible underlying causes. 


Outpatient treatment

Outpatient addiction treatment refers to any form of care that does not involve a residential stay.

Some rehabs offer outpatient treatment which involves receiving medication for detox and attending therapy sessions during the day. However, while this is still an effective form of treatment, it does not remove you from environmental triggers and drugs.

Attending local drug and alcohol services and support groups are also considered forms of outpatient treatment. 


The term ‘legal highs’ is an inaccurate definition of these drugs. Some contain controlled substances, while others are made with harmful chemicals that can be found in household products. Because legal highs are not to be sold for human consumption so they are often sold as incense, salts or plant food to get around the law. Although their packaging often contains a long list of ingredients, you cannot be sure what these substances contain.

Legal highs are packaged for sale in many ways and are marketed as plant food, bath salts and research chemicals. Synthetic cannabinoids are often created to resemble natural cannabis while others appear to replicate other illicit pills and powders.

While the ingredients may be listed, they are often inaccurate and vary in purity. Many drugs that were previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone and synthetic cannabinoids.

This means that they are illegal to possess or to supply to others.

Legal highs produce incredibly intense highs because they are designed to mimic the effects of other widely used illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Legal highs are also cost much less and are easily accessible, which makes them an appealing alternative for drug users. However, these factors also mean they carry the risk of abuse and addiction. 

There have been many reports of people suffering fatal overdoses as a result of taking legal highs. This could be because the drug has contained a toxic substance, or someone has taken too high a dosage. Because these drugs are quite often mislabelled, some may have suffered overdoses as a result of mistaking one substance for another. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the ingredients of legal highs, it is also difficult for emergency services, such as paramedics and doctors, to identify which treatment is needed.

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A page revised the 6 of July of 2021, by Matthew Reece, a certified PG cons diploma, a clinical Lead/ Senior counsellor at Step by Step Recovery.

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