No to ‘legal highs’! Tackling new psychoactive substances in Wales

12 May 2015

Article by Philippa Watkins, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

New psychoactive substances (NPS) were recognised as an emerging threat following the rapid growth in use of the drug mephedrone (meow meow, m-cat) in 2009.

Widely available via the internet and on the high street, their ease of availability, along with what may be a low price and high purity compared with illegal drugs, are thought to be the main factors in the growing use of these substances.

Image of a white powder

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Commonly referred to as ‘legal highs’, NPS are drugs which have been synthesised to produce the same or similar effects as illegal drugs. NPS are not automatically controlled under drugs legislation (in the UK, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971) as they are newly created and their chemical composition may be slightly different to that of banned substances.

There is significant concern that, while they are thought of as ‘legal’, there is a misconception that they are safe. Users are often unaware of the actual contents of the drug they are taking, the strength and side effects of which are difficult to predict. There has been limited research into the effects, particularly the long-term effects, of taking these drugs. Additionally, some NPS have been found to contain substances which are themselves illegal.

Evidence received by the Assembly’s Health and Social Care Committee for its recent inquiry into NPS was clear that ‘legal highs’ is a dangerous misnomer, and that further work is needed to raise awareness of the harms associated with NPS use. A number of the Committee’s recommendations focus on increasing public and professional awareness of NPS, including ensuring a more consistent approach to drug education in schools, and the provision of tailored information to parents.

NPS use may be generally low and associated with less harm compared with illegal drugs, however the scale of the NPS problem is not fully understood as there is a lack of official data available to provide an accurate picture. It is possible that the harm from legal highs is underreported – given the inconsistency of ingredients for example, neither users nor health professionals may know what substance has caused an adverse reaction.

A number of ‘early warning systems’ are in place to collect, test and profile new substances in circulation. In Wales for example, the WEDINOS project was established in October 2013.

Without a better understanding of prevalence and patterns of use however, planning appropriate services for NPS users remains a challenge. A recent report from the charity DrugScope notes that relatively few people are coming forward to treatment services citing an NPS as their primary drug problem – ‘However, this may well be a reflection of the way the services are set up’. The Health and Social Care Committee recommends that urgent work is undertaken to establish an effective means of measuring NPS use among the population.

The Welsh Government’s substance misuse strategy for Wales highlights that tackling substance misuse effectively requires the Welsh and UK Governments to work together on issues which cross the boundary of devolved and non-devolved areas of responsibility – such as misuse of drugs legislation and enforcement activity.

To address the supply and trade of NPS, in October 2014 the Home Office announced that it would explore the feasibility of a UK-wide ban on the sale of NPS, targeting high street ‘head shops’ and UK based websites. The Health and Social Care Committee welcomes this, but emphasises that legislative levers alone will not be enough.

It’s clear that there is no ‘silver bullet’. A coordinated, partnership approach, involving all relevant agencies and services, will be key to tackling what may be a growing – but to some extent still hidden – problem in Wales and across the UK.

The Welsh Government has accepted all the Health and Social Care Committee’s recommendations. The Home Office has also written to the Committee, welcoming its work and supporting each of the 14 recommendations. The Committee’s report will be debated in the Assembly on 13 May 2015.

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