“Everyone’s talking about it, everyone’s doing it!” says 15 year-old Darren. Two guesses about what he means…no, not sex, and not the demon drink! He’s been talking about the use of so-called ‘legal highs’ – that wide and ever-widening category of new psychoactive substances that have captured the media’s imagination. They are now lodged in many peoples’ perception as the drugs most commonly used by young people.
Last month the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction reported that there are 280 new legal drugs on sale in Europe. Last week the government announced a year-long ban on two “legal highs” – NBOMe and Benzo Fury while drugs experts assess their impact. NBOMe has an effect that is similar to LSD and Benzo Fury is said to act like amphetamines, such as speed.
The scale of the issue is immense. New legal highs and other synthetic drugs – mostly made in Asia – are appearing on the market at the rate of one a week.
Alongside the media frenzy that often accompanies awareness of a new or developing trend in drugs use, there has inevitably been a moral backlash with demands for a tightening of legislation and increased vigilance by the public. Some responses have been along these lines with a raft of amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act over recent years.
However, attempts to stem the tide of laboratory produced chemical substances that claim to mimic illegal drugs have seemed pretty futile as a response. The ease with which mass-produced and endlessly varying formulations get on to the market is staggering. The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform reported on ‘legal highs’ earlier this year and they were pretty much of one voice in recognising that the current policy is failing. It might even be that the cycle of banning more and more substances simply increases the creativity and resolve of these dodgy chemists to produce more substances.
So, what should be our response to this as a sector engaged with young people, and as practitioners and agencies concerned to promote and protect the health and well-being of young people?
I venture tentatively into these murky waters as we know the debate is fraught with dangers of ‘moral certainty’ occasioned by panic, and the equally unattractive characteristic of adult hypocritical myopia. But I shall wade in.
I have been struck by the number of occasions in the last six months that the subject of ‘legal highs’ has come up in conversation. With fellow professionals – youth workers, teachers, medics, and police officers – there’s a huge interest in what they are, what they do, and what can be done to stop them. Often the subject of ‘risk’ has been raised.
“Do they not realise, what they’re doing! “, said the well-intentioned guidance teacher as she made clear to me that alcohol was “not as important for us (at the school)” and that ‘legal highs’ were “definitely on.” Oh really, that will be alcohol that kills over 300, 000 young people world-wide every year – or 9% of deaths in that age group.
Clearly then there is, at one level, an adult perception of risk that sees these substances as being in a different (though in many cases, legal) category to the risks that alcohol poses.
And, of course, the answer to that guidance teacher is “No, very often, they don’t understand the risks and it is increasingly obvious and important that we tackle the misguided belief that ‘legal drugs ‘are safer than illicit ones.”
And risk there certainly is. The most used legal highs, in our experience of older school-aged young people, falls into the synthetic cannabinoids category. These substances have cannabis-like effects but very often they are much more potent and the way they are sold risks users consuming quantities that would be unlikely with cannabis.
Young people often do not see that risk. And that’s probably no different from other aspects of risk taking that’s commonplace at this age – drinking too much, or mixing drink and ‘well-established’ illegal drugs. The attraction of the moment, the oblivion or the influence of peers can be overwhelming – and can many of us, as adults, identify with that? Probably.
But risk and risk taking behaviour is understood to be a healthy part of growing up, and our adult frame of reference of risk is, I’d suggest, often very different from that of the adolescent.
When these shiny new packets of ‘botanical incense’ ( a marketing ploy used by some legal high sellers) can be purchased in the centre of town from retail outlets that appear in many respects to be ‘legitimate’, who can blame a young person for thinking the risk is minimal?
But the reality is that there is no quality control, no dosage instructions, and no safety advice.
Marketing approaches have made these products seem like any other commodity – attractive packaging, with brand names that sound fun and risky – like Annihilation, Black Mamba (both of which recently became illegal), and Diablo. It’s very likely that this cynical and well-tested route to market of familiarisation and normalisation increases the perception of low risk for young people.
“It must be ok, if it’s legal”, and “they can’t sell it if it would hurt you”, may seem naïve to many of us, but it has a certain flawed logic. The attraction of legal highs, that can easily be bought without being ‘carded’ for your age, and that run no risk of you being embroiled in the criminal justice system, seem obvious when set alongside the less accessible and illegal substances that would vie for the attention of young people – most notably cannabis. But with easy availability on the high street, 100’s of websites selling this stuff and delivery to your door-step by post, it’s no wonder that their presence seems ubiquitous.
But please, let’s not forget that many young people do not use ‘legal highs’ , even if they are talking about them, and the attraction of the newest ‘cool ‘thing can equally hook us in as workers to believe that everything has changed. Sadly, some of the familiar issues around substance use remain well embedded in our culture.
The recent UNICEF UK Report card 11 reports a drop in the number of children in the UK who are overweight and records a fall in the numbers of young people smoking and using cannabis. Good news undoubtedly.
But alcohol abuse remains a major area of concern – with the rate staying stubbornly high for 11-15 year olds at around 20%.
I doubt if the public perception of risk is anything like as high for alcohol as that which seems to be around for the new kids on the block – the ‘legal highs’.
Whilst media attention and prevention activity may be skewed towards these new mysterious products there’s still a massive task to be done by all of us to tackle Scotland’s on-going destructive love affair with alcohol. That might not seem new and sexy, like the packets of chemicals that capture young peoples’ attention, but it’s crucial to the health and well-being of our young people and to the welfare of Scotland.