Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

Legal drugs: all the pros and none of the cons?

We have all heard of businesses using the internet to facilitate trade; companies can reach larger audiences and consumers can buy items from the comfort of their own homes. However, it now seems illegal activity like drug dealing is also utilising this platform, and dangerous drugs are being bought and sold under the guise of being ‘legal-highs’.

Legal-highs promise all the positive aspects of illicit recreational drug use, with none of the drawbacks; you don’t need to worry about avoiding the police or having to go out and buy your drugs, you can now have them delivered directly to your door by the postman. The number of new legal-highs appearing on the market is continuing to grow and the number of online shops selling these substances has trebled since 2010, the majority of which are in the UK (EMCDDA, 2012).

Marketed as research chemicals, plant food or bath salts, and stating ‘not for human consumption’, little is medically known about these drugs, and although they claim legality, many of them are actually found to contain prohibited class B substances.

So why are an increasing number of young people turning to ‘legal-highs’ to get their kicks? Because it’s ‘safer’? Cheaper? Because they do not need to worry about getting into trouble with the law? Whatever the reason, what many users of legal-highs do not take into consideration is that they may be putting their health at risk by ingesting products containing unknown substances which are often a mixture of both legal and prohibited ingredients. Little is known about their long term or short term affects, yet there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that legal-highs have contributed to a number of fatalities and A&E casualties.

A study being carried out by the Department of Criminology, in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry, analysed the constituents of twenty-two products purchased from five different internet sites and found that it was possible to purchase up to 1KG, far too much for one person’s use. Therefore, these drugs are being bought online in order for the buyers to sell them on, creating a whole new aspect to the world of drug dealing. Legal-highs are frequently given new names and marketed as superior, but legal, alternatives to the banned substances they purport to replace. This research demonstrates that drugs cannot be legislated out of existence and illustrates that prohibiting these substances does not stop their supply or their use, reiterating the reoccurring sentiment that the UK’s drug laws are failing and may actually be causing more ‘harm than good'.

What is in these drugs and where are they manufactured? The answer to this question is often unknown. If someone has a bad reaction to a legal-high and is in need of urgent medical attention, it is very difficult for doctors at A&E to discern what it is that person has taken, and therefore how to treat them. Health professionals have a lack of knowledge about the short and long term effects these substances have on those presenting themselves at GP's surgeries or hospitals and although they might take the packaging with them, there is nothing on it to assist in understanding what it contains.

These drugs may be more dangerous than their illegal counterparts. Yet they can arrive on your doorstep in one click of your mouse, with no questions asked.

Tammy Ayres

Research interests

  • The link between drugs and crime
  • The prison system, including drugs in prison and its subsequent treatment
  • The perceived links between substance use, self-harm and suicide within the prison system
  • Issues surrounding female substance users

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