Legal highs: alternative or experiment?


Young adults are turning to legal highs as they seek alternatives to other drugs experts say.

The BBC reported today that The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse warned that drugs had emerged as an alternative to the low quality of other substances.

Less than 1% of people use cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. There has also been a reduction in the number of those seeking help for these addictions.

The NTA report, in conjunction with an investigation by Glasgow University has discovered that there is evidence that more young people are turning towards legal highs, such as mephedrone.

In the article by the BBC, Peter Kelsy of Lifeline Redcar and Cleveland said: “We’re seeing a big rise in people coming to use because of legal highs, which we think may be down to the poor quality and price of coke and the legal aspect.”

Increased Usage

In a survey conducted by dance magazine Mixmag in February, Mephedrone was the fourth most popular substance for those questioned. Since its increased popularity the government made a commitment to investigate the risks of the drug and banned it, making it a Class B drug in April.

The fact that harder drugs such as cocaine, crack and heroin are illegal, and more difficult to get hold of means that young adults are inevitably turning to other highs.

Manufacturers can avoid the law by changing just one molecule of an illegal substance in order to make something completey new which is technically not illegal. In doing so the drug will have similar effects to the real thing such as increased heart rate and hightenned excitability.

At the beginning of this year it also became clear that the internet is playing an important part in the accessibility of drugs. It changes the way that drugs are sold. It no longer has to involve the stereotypical meetings in dark underways to avoid being seen but means that people can buy substances in the same way as they do other online shopping.

Not only is it easy to buy, but people are learning that is becoming easier to sell online as well. And they can lower prices in order to increase the orders they recieve.

Manufacturers can avoid other restrictions by selling them as plant foods or horse tranquilisers, like Ketamine. However there is often no evidence for them being used as fertillisers.  


It is clear that people turn to cheaper and easier accesible things as a part of human nature. For example, many would chose to buy a jacket from Primark in order to save some money over the same looking jacket from Topshop. Especially in this economic climate!

So when people see how easy it is to get some drugs over others they will, of course, chose those more easily accessible. And who wants to be put in jail after being found in possession of an illegal substance for a quick high?

The percentage of the drug compared to what it is cut with is also leading users away from illegal highs. Powdered substances such as cocaine are often cut with flour or sugar to increase their weight so it can be sold for more, but who knows what else it could be cut with.

There is always that fear that it has been cut with something lethal. According to US health officials warned that 69% cocaine was being cut with a deadly animal deworming drug and in 2009, Brian O’Brian, an intensive care specialist from Mater Hospital in Dublin, told The Times that “Street level cocaine is now about 30% pure whereas is used to be 60% or 70%.”

Hearing all of these statistics may deter someone from buying harder drugs but then again they aren’t reducing this risk when they are buying legal highs. Many users can find themselves being conned into buying mainly flour as opposed to what they thought they were buying, or even worse something as dangerous as rat poison.

But the main attraction for legal highs, minus what the drugs are being cut with is the price and accessibility. Even if it is cut with something dangerous or something as simple as flour a legal high will always be cheaper and easier to get hold of than cocaine, crack cocaine or heroin.


The other side of the argument is that an increasing number of people are turning to legal highs because they are experimenting with different substances.

It’s like the first time you have an alcoholic drink. It’s a new and exciting feeling and you want to try more. Same goes for drugs.

Many see cannabis as a gateway drug. It shows users something other than alcohol which can make them feel good, in a different way and it can open the door to alternative substances. Their dealers for example may sell them something else they are selling or even give some away for free to entice the person back.

A lot of young adults go through that stage of wanting to try new things. Especially at university.

Being away from home and having the freedom to do what you like; seeing other people who are trying new things is a massive attraction for a lot of young people.

Word gets round that they can get hold of something easily and cheaply and it all starts from there. Different things are passed around, a dealer runs out of one thing, or a drug is made illegal and people find something else and that becomes the new craze.

For most people, they will find themselves with a lot of tempatations and fulfilling them involves trying new drugs.

Hard core drugs like heroin and crack cocaine are too complicated for new users and they will try a lot of different things before they reach that stage. And by then, hopefully, a lot of them will have moved on and not want to try them. Especially after knowing how addictive they are and the risks, which surpass all that is readily available.


The main reason people chose legal highs over illegal substances has got to be the inital awareness of the dangers of harder drugs.

It’s one of those things that you’re made aware of at a young age. A tabboo if you may. Something to avoid.

With legal highs, people see them as an alternative becasue there are no risks, as of yet, that have been substaintially found. The formulas are too new to judge at this stage what the long term effects, if any, are.

And so I think that people are more attracted to legal highs, not only becasue of the price and excessibility but also because they don’t have that moral voice in the back of their mind that screams “this is bad for you!”

Even though they probably know its not great, no matter how good it makes you feel at the time, despite feeling as though you want to die on that prolonged come down, there’s just not that definitive warning.

There has been little evidence to say that a new substance is harmful, scientists are still in the process of observing the effects.

And so, as a final thought, no drug is good. Lets face it. But having the chance to try, and experiment, (not that im endorsing drug use), but many young people want to try new things. (But perhaps not things that they know for sure are a danger. You wouldn’t go jumping off a cliff just to see what it was like becasue you know you would fall to your death.) But its part of growing up, the excitement of something new; the accessibilty just makes it all the more attractive.

About Daisy Bambridge

I am a student at Wesminster University studying a Masters in Broadcast Journalism. I recently graduated from Southampton University after studying Politics and International Relations. I have a strong interest in social issues such as crime,drugs, alcohol, eating disorders. I am also deeply fascinated by terrorism, after the disasters of 9/11, as can be seen in my unergraduate dissertation on anti-terror legislation and human rights.
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