It was New Year’s Eve 2013. The barn rave started in good nature; alcohol fuelled and surrounded by friends, new and old, some of which were frequent recreational drug users. In the lead up towards midnight, the atmosphere oozed a wild and uncontrollable mist of elation. Hordes of 20-something students danced erratically, permeated with feelings of ecstasy behind glazed eyes. The air was intoxicating and enticing and it seemed almost unnatural not to join the crowd of pleasure seeking friends and strangers into a state of otherworldly pleasure.
Sniffing white lines of the newest legal high ‘poke’, purchased earlier from our local ‘head shop’, we eagerly waited to experience what the shopkeeper had assured us newly 18 year old’s were similar effects to that of taking cocaine. At a price of £7 compared to the hefty costs of the real deal, it did not, at first, disappoint. Before all but 15 minutes had passed, I was a dancing, floating bubble of confidence, euphoria and energy. As is the norm with stimulants however, throughout the night I felt the need to take more and more of this ‘magic’ powder in a desperate attempt to reach a high not humanely plausible or possible. I snorted my last gram at sunrise, partying until I could no longer stand up.
Following a brief taxi ride that has escaped my memory, I was in bed, but sleep was far from within my reach. Agitation, stress and exhaustion hit me like a tonne of bricks, and a growing wave of nausea left me cowered over the toilet in a muddle of regret and vomit. Night came and I fell into a fitful sleep, eagerly anticipating the next morning, desperate to feel human again. Yet my torturous night did not relent in the face of daylight. For three consecutive days, I journeyed to and fro between bedroom and bathroom only leaving my bed to sprint to the toilet, and only leaving the toilet to find solace in my bed. Is this what death feels like? I frequently wondered to myself in a simmering haze of pain and terror. Ironically, though, I find myself very fortunate to have survived the whole affair with little more than an ounce of shame and an inkling of self-pity.Welcome to the world of legal highs.
People are quick to associate being high with the consumption of illegal pills, herbs and powders, but in recent years it has been increasingly possible to achieve the pleasurable effects of drugs via a legal purchase made over the counter. Ultimately, this means that it has been very possible, and very popular, to get high by narrowly avoiding breaking the law. With the rise of the new world rave culture, the 21st century has experienced a surge in popularity of so called ‘legal’ highs, and as hard-core university students begin to seek a more euphoric and intense escape from the stresses of everyday life, it is almost impossible to avoid them. Yet too many have consumed legal highs based on the incorrect assumption that because they are legal, they are free from the risks that plague Class A substances. In reality, legal highs are constantly reformed to allow them to bypass the law, making it impossible to know the product’s contents and the dangers they may pose. The media have been active in covering legal high related incidents which occasionally lead to death, but as the culture of clubbing continues to establish itself as a societal norm, the terrors of taking a legal high has had little to no visible effect on the popularity of the products. However as the war on substance abuse in Britain continues as a cause for debate, recent government plans will work to knock legal drugs down from their high ground within the coming months.
First of all, it’s important to understand exactly what legal highs consist of. Legal highs are officially described as new psychoactive substances (NPS) and contain one or more chemical ingredients that produce a similar effect to illegal drugs. They will either create the effect of consuming a stimulant (such as cocaine), a sedative (such as marijuana), or a psychedelics (such as magic mushrooms). Often, there is not significant research concerning the chemicals and their reactions to other substances including other drugs or alcohol. This has meant that some users have suffered adverse effects when consuming a legal high, leading to paranoia, seizures, and even death. Drugs covered in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 are classified as illegal through their chemical composition; hence legal highs, which tend to be slightly altered compositions, allowing them to be sold and purchased legally. To name a few, they are sold in powder, pill, capsules or liquid form and can be purchased online or at ‘head shops’ that tend to stock drug paraphernalia and other new world items.
Often more potent than the illegal substances they mimic, legal highs have caused controversy due to their unpredictable reactions and/or interactions, which vary from person to person. According to the Daily Record, legal high related deaths have risen from 4 in 2009 to 114 in 2015. In January 2016, a 49 year old man was found unresponsive after taking ‘Spice’, in St James Park Bristol and subsequently died. August 2015 saw the death of Elvis Snelson at a gay pride festival after overdosing on ‘Acetylfentanyl’, and Adam Owens was found dead in a Northern Ireland housing estate following a two year addiction to the legal high ‘Doob’. Commonly labelled as plant foods or bath salts, their brightly-coloured and enticing packaging can be deceiving and is not reflective of the dangers associated with consuming a legal high. Many people, such as Nathan, 21, seem largely unaware or untroubled by any potential negative effects.“The first time I ever did a legal high was the best time, it was a green goblin. I remember being so happy that my cheeks started to hurt from smiling so hard.” He acknowledges though that further attempts to reach the same level of elation have been disappointing. Indeed, not all experiences of legal highs are positive – Sarah, 20, comments “Poppers gave me a bit of a headache, they weren’t worth it. I didn’t feel much from it.”
Originally due to come into effect on 6th of April as a means to tackle the significant rise in legal high related incidents, the Government blanket ban has been postponed for at least a month following confusion regarding the definition of a psychoactive substance. The difficulty in encompassing legal highs within one enforceable definition highlights the multitude of legal substances that must be available online and in head shops across the country. Though shrouded in mystery and offering an unparalleled promise of ethereal excitement, the hospitalisation of three 15 year old schoolboys on 8 March perhaps illustrates that not enough is being done to educate easily impressionable young people of their effects. For university students in particular, it is not uncommon to have dabbled in a bit of ‘Poke’ or ‘Spice’. For many, experiences with legal highs have transformed the clubbing culture and experiences with the widely popular Nitrous Oxide in particular (otherwise known as laughing gas or ‘Nos’), are largely very positive. Maisie, 19, says “The first time I did it, it made me feel really light headed, that kind of head rush feeling where you think you might faint. The people around me looked strange too, cartoonish almost. Since the first time, I’ve found that it just gives me that pleasant light heartedness and floaty feeling. My sense of touch feels more sensitive too.” Dave, 21, agrees “Nos is definitely the best legal high, its effects are so short but can be absolutely crazy, especially when taken with alcohol.”
Yet debate continues as to whether a blanket ban will be successful in reducing consumption of these unpredictable substances, or push the legal high scene underground and into further demand. It has become apparent that Ireland’s introduction of a similar legislation, which succeeded in closing head shops and online outlets, has led users into a darker and more dangerous world of illegal street dealings and purchases on the deep web. In light of this, Sarah, 20, is sceptical; “people will still get hold of them as easy as people can get hold of class A’s. It doesn’t make a difference whether they’re legal or not.” Thus it seems that banning substances as a means to combat their harmful effects is a method that may evoke more problems than it solves. But not all are in opposition of the impending blanket ban. Taylor, 20, says, “Personally, I think it’s a good thing. These ‘legal high’ creators always find a way around the system with the current laws, playing Russian roulette with people’s lives. If people want to go out of their way to find this stuff, fine, but having shops actively promoting the sale of ‘legal highs’ should be banned.”
While critics remain unconvinced that our party-orientated generation will turn away from the temptations that promise that ultimate euphoric ‘buzz’, the Psychoactive Substances Act at least stands as recognition of the fatal effects of legal highs. Taylor continues, “Taking the legal high ‘Pink Panther’ was a complete out of body experience. I had almost zero control of my body and every move I made was extremely slow and over calculated. The paranoia came almost instantly and I was jittery, my mind was over-active and everything was very intense.” From one overly curious and slightly irresponsible university student to another, the world of cheap legal highs may sound glamorous, but lying on a bathroom floor amongst your own vomit and shame is a far cry from the no-shits, fun loving party lifestyle that many may envision whilst sniffing lines of Poke with equally inebriated strangers. Though they say that curiosity killed the cat, for those prone to indulging in the wilder side of life before the onset of adulthood, the temptation to delve into the underworld of drugs remains often too hard to resist.
– Ellise Nicholls