Legal highs mimic the effects of a restricted or illegal drug, such as ecstasy or cocaine; but they are structurally different enough not to be classified as an illegal drug themselves. Legal highs are often based on herbs, botanical extracts or „research chemicals“ - new types of synthesised chemicals.
The legality of “legal highs” varies country to country, and changes rapidly over the course of time. Legal highs can also be legally confiscated in most countries should you be caught with them.
There are 8 main types of legal highs, these are Stimulants, Psychedelics, and Synthetic cannabis, Dissociatives, Deliriants, Depressants, Inhalants and Opioids.
A psychedelic is a psychoactive substance that temporarily alters the way the brain works, changing perception. They can often cause hallucinations, varying in strength depending on the drug. Examples of psychedelics are Salvia divinorum, Hawaiian baby woodrose, liquid LSD and liquid XTC.
Synthetic cannabinoids can often be found in incense and smokeable products, and are legal in most situations, but the legality can vary largely country to country. However, they can have vastly different effects depending on the chemical in question, and in general they have an entirely different safety profile than cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids are designed to mimic THC, but the results can be dangerous. John W Huffman, chemist a creator of synthetic cannabinoids remarks “It’s like playing Russian roulette, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Synthetic cannabinoids have been so popular because governments do not seem to be able to keep up with the rate they are being discovered, so as one is banned, another takes its place. Common examples of synthetic cannabinoids are the chemicals JHW-200, JHW-081, HU-210 and MAM-2201.
Dissociatives are type of hallucinogen that alter the perception of sight and sound in order to create feeling of detachment from both the environment, and the self. They are unique in the way that they cause their hallucinogenic effects – dissociatives block signals to parts of the conscious mind. In addition to dissociation, they can also sometimes cause sensory deprivation and dream like trances. Examples of dissociatives are nitrous oxide and Methoxetamine.
Deliriants are psychoactive hallucinogens that are distinguished from psychedelics and dissociatives for their ability to cause delirium – a state of confusion and disorientation. The effects are very similar to those of psychedelics, but the delirium makes it hard to maintain a constant state of lucidity or awareness. Examples of deliriants are diphenhydramine and dimenhydrinate.
Depressants are drugs that decrease the amount of neurotransmission in the brain. This causes an effect of reduced stimulation and arousal. In other words they have a psychologically sedative effect. Examples include ethanol and diethyl ether.
Inhalants cause a powerful but short psychoactive effect via the inhalation of vapours. A common example is the use of nitrates, also known as “poppers”.
An opioid is a chemical that has effects similar to that of morphine or other opiates. It is mainly used to reduce pain and sedate the body. There are very few legal opioids, with kratom products being one of the few.
As slightly touched upon, new legal highs are constantly being created or discovered. Governments cannot keep up with the rate at which they are being produced, and this is partly because it is very easy to do so. In the 2013 World Drug Report from the United Nations it is noted that „the international drug control system is floundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity of the phenomenon known as new psychoactive substances (NPS)“. A massive amount of novel compounds is entering the markets, and regulators can‘t keep up. And even if they catch up, it‘s a powerless situation, as observed by the report: „Scheduling has little or no immediate impact on the use of the substance“.
To produce a „new psychoactive substance“, all you need is someone with a bit of chemistry knowledge to take the molecular makeup of an illegal drug and then tweak it slightly. As long as the chemical composition is different to that of the illegal drug it is technically legal, and is still likely to have similar effects. Once you have this blueprint, all you need to do is find a lab willing to produce it - and anecdotal reports suggest that they are not hard to come by, particularly in China.
The unfortunate aspect of this development is that many novel compounds haven‘t been thoroughly researched for their toxicity profile. Contrary to substances like cannabis or natural psychedelics, which have been used for millennia, the effect of novel compounds is often largely unknown. While no drug can be described as „safe“, using research chemicals may pose significantly higher risk than using substances with a longer history. A good example of this is MPTP - l-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,5,6-tetrahydropyridine - which after only three uses produces parkinson-like brain degeneration. While some compounds might be perfectly safe, taking novel compounds often makes you a human guinea pig.
Whilst governments are struggling to keep up with wave after wave of new legal highs, they are slowly but surely making their way through them. To this end, the legal high industry in some countries is working towards recognition and safety. An example of this is in New Zealand, where a self-regulating industry body has been put in place, as well as a code of conduct.
The aim behind the move is to help those who sell legal highs commercially stay within the bounds of the law as well maintain a high standard of regulation. Many people are concerned by the idea of legal highs, but by the industry making sure that it maintains high standards and acts responsibly, it can hopefully gain standing in the eyes of the concerned portions of the community, as well as with the government.