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A guide on legal highs and new psychoactive substances

Including advice on what operators should do


The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, introduced on 26 May 2016, makes drugs formally known as “legal highs” illegal. There are exemptions in the Act to cover things like medical products, food, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.

During 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated. The Home Office has also said that “Poppers” or alkyl nitrates do not fall under the Act.

Types of legal highs

  • Stimulants (like mephedrone, naphyrone) act like amphetamines, cocaine, or ecstasy, in that they can make you feel energised, physically active, fast-thinking, very chatty and euphoric.
  • Downers or sedatives (like GHB/GBL, methoxetamine)  act similarly to benzodiazepines (drugs like diazepam or Valium), or GHB/GBL, in that they can make you feel euphoric, relaxed or sleepy.
  • Hallucinogens or psychedelics  (like NBOMe drugs)act like LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine and methoxetamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). They can induce feelings of euphoria, warmth, ‘enlightenment’ and being detached from the world around.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids (like Spice or Black Mamba): act similarly to cannabis. The effects of these are similar cannabis intoxication:  relaxation, altered consciousness, disinhibition, a state of being energised and euphoria.

Why are they so dangerous?

  • Because health agencies have no idea what is in them, or how to deal with them when something goes wrong.
  • Because NPS include lots of different substances and what’s in them can change, often the immediate effects can vary. There is the possibility of accidental overdosing as the strength of some substances is unknown.
  • Risks of NPS include reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, psychosis, hallucinations, dizziness, sickness, overheating, coma and seizures. Many NPS have been directly linked to emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, deaths.
  • Research from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) showed that there were 97 recorded deaths from legal highs in the UK in 2012, up from 12 in 2009.  The CSJ, an independent think tank, says that the UK has the highest number of legal high users among young people in Europe. Drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction says the drugs are often marketed to young people through brightly coloured packaging but are also becoming the “drug of choice” for other users because they are easy to buy.

Where have legal highs been banned?

  • In addition to the UK’s ban, in the Irish Republic it is an offence to advertise, sell, supply, import or export psychoactive substances.
  • Lincoln had already introduced a ban on people taking legal highs in public while other councils, including Newcastle, used licensing powers or trading standards regulations to restrict sales.
    Taunton had also banned their use in public places.

Managing the use of drugs in the workplace:

  • Employers should consider new psychoactive substances when writing their drug and alcohol policies. How much of a problem are they?
  • Alcohol and drugs policies don’t have to be limited to what is and isn’t allowed in the law. The use of alcohol is not illegal, yet most companies will have a ban or limit on alcohol consumption during working hours. New psychoactive substances should be built into Alcohol and drugs policies.
  • If an organisation’s policy includes drug testing this may be more challenging when trying to identify new psychoactive substances as the compounds they contain change regularly. It may be easier for the policy to focus on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the drugs themselves.

Managing the use of drugs by customers in your premises:

  • Whilst it is not an offence to be in possession of these drugs it is an offence to be in possession with intent to supply;
  • However, as with workers, the policies you put in place do not need to be limited to what is and isn’t allowed in the law and therefore you could build these into your drugs policy for customers, for example to say that anyone found in possession of them will be asked to leave;
    If you do this you should ensure that notices are displayed to make customers aware of your policy and the action that will be taken;
  • You should ensure training policies for staff are updated to include details on both looking out for people taking these and assessing whether they should be served (e.g. same as drunkenness) and also what action should be taken if they are found in possession of them;

The law:

  • For the purposes of this Act a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.”– Psychoactive Substances Act
  • The Act will also enable police to shut down “headshops” (stores from which “legal highs” and drugs paraphernalia can be bought) and online dealers. They can also seize and destroy psychoactive substances, as well as search people, premises, and vehicles.
  • Those involved in the supply, production, possession with intent to supply and importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance now face a prison sentence of up to 7 years.
  • Police will also be able to deploy new civil sanctions including prohibition and premise notices to allow them to shut down ‘headshops’ and UK-based online dealers, with up to 2 years in prison for those who fail to comply.
  • Our jails will also be safer with penalties of up to 2 years in prison for possessing a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution.

Our Advice:

  • Would be to err on the side of caution and treat these substances the same way you treat illegal substances and have a zero tolerance policy;
  • You should ensure that customers are aware of this to avoid any confrontational situations when you try and ask someone to leave or refuse someone admittance;
  • You should ensure that staff are fully trained on any policy you introduce and are aware to look out for the signs that a customer has been taking these substances and that they should refuse service (if this is the policy); and
  • You should remember that possession with intent to supply is an offence now and so if you catch someone supplying these to another then you should take the appropriate action in reporting the offence.
  • Whilst possession of an NPS may not be an offence operators still have an overriding duty to promote the licensing objectives and particularly, in these circumstances, the prevention of crime and disorder and public safety.  Promotion of these provides the necessary justification for asking customers to leave if believed to be in possession.
  • It is always worth making enquiries locally either directly of the Police Licensing Officer or through Pubwatch to determine whether there is a problem in local venues and whether any guidance will be provided in dealing with the issues at a local level.

For further information about the laws around legal highs and new psychoactive substances – particularly with regards licensing – contact partner Graeme Cushion on 0115 953 85010

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