What are legal highs?

The kinds of drugs available to young people has always changed over the years but quite gradually. For example ecstasy emerged in the late eighties and Ketamine about 10 years ago. They were controlled under the law although continued to be popular. But in the last 3-4 years there has been a huge number of new drugs with uncertain harms and effects. Some are stimulants, some hallucinogens, a few are anaesthetics, and others are synthetic cannabis. There has been a concerted attempt by manufacturers and suppliers to circumvent the law to sell these products. Some are not very strong, others are very powerful. This website offers information about a whole range of drugs: legal highs, club drugs and more familiar drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis.

What is Angelus?

The aim of the Angelus Foundation is to educate, encourage and assist people to be more knowledgeable about the risks to their health and well-being of using ‘legal highs’ and all harmful social substances, including alcohol, so they make better safer choices. Many young people still turn to their parents for advice on drugs and alcohol. We want to stimulate conversations where the risks can be considered. There is a lot of ignorance about these new drugs, Angelus wants to see less risk taking and less harm in people’s lives.

Are legal highs as strong as other drugs?

Legal Highs can vary hugely in strength. Generally they are much purer than the traditional drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine. But there is no connection between strength and their legal status. The assumption that a legal drug means it is safe is a wrong and dangerous one.

Are they are less risky?

Risk is based on information so on that basis these substances are more risky because much less is known about them. The key information needed to measure risk is: dose, speed of action, degree of effect, duration of effects. People taking them also need to ensure the right environment to be safe. Drugs can act faster, slower or more powerfully depending on whether they are swallowed or snorted, whether the person has eaten, drunk alcohol, how tolerant they are to it, even what mood they are in.

Do people know what they are getting?

Often they don’t. These substances, when bought from internet or headshops, are not labelled accurately. This is quite deliberate. If they are just sold in a wrap or a bag they could be a mixture of several drugs and adulterants. No-one should rely on the person selling the drug; his main motivation is selling more. Regular dealers may try and give more accurate information but the truth is they don’t know either.

Why do the labels say plant food or bath salts?

None of these substances are plant food or bath salts. They are labelled in that way to ensure they do not contravene the law on supply of medicines. That is why they also indicate “not for human consumption.”

Are they safe if they are still legal?

There are simply too many drugs for the Government to ban immediately. So the law is not a good indicator on safety. The European Drug Monitoring Centre estimates there are about 50 new drugs coming out every year. They are not all available everywhere and some are hardly used. Others like MXE (a Ketamine type drug) can become relatively popular very quickly.

Are they addictive?

All drugs vary in addictiveness but most can be addictive if taken regularly and club drugs are no different. Mephedrone is a relatively new drug and it has been shown to be addictive leading to depression. So has Ketamine. Any level of addiction is dangerous to long-term health. Addiction also changes your priorities where the drug becomes increasingly important over work/study, friends and family. Addiction also has a strong association with crime. There is little treatment available to those who have developed dependence to club drugs because there is little information on how they affect the brain and body.

Why are legal highs suddenly popular?

In short because of their price and purity. Club drugs which have been around for a while like cocaine and ecstasy have become decreasingly pure, often less than 20 percent and sometimes below 10 percent. Mephedrone, when it first became popular 2008-9, was almost entirely pure. It also cost only about £10 a gram which is about a quarter the price of cocaine.

Are they all legal?

Some are legal. Many are not. Headshops and internet suppliers mostly try and stay on the right side of the law. But it has been shown, after chemical analyses, that some are mixtures of legal and illegal substances. Sometimes they are just Mephedrone. You could only really be sure what you are taking if you had access to an expert toxicologist and an extensive laboratory.

Can people overdose on them?

Yes. Drug-related deaths usually involve more than one drug. Any drug can cause a very bad reaction. Some may be highly enjoyable for a time but that doesn’t mean taking more simply increases the amount of pleasure. It is easy to get to a critical point where the body or brain cannot cope and begins to shut down. Some drugs make body temperature rise dangerously and in a club environment, it is very hard to get it down. The temptation is to drink plenty of water which also can be very harmful. Most deaths from ecstasy are from water intoxication.

Are Legal Highs weaker?

No, not necessarily. The legal status of any substance has no relevance to its strength. There are some very powerful drugs such Phenezepam (a sedative) and Benzo Fury (stimulant) which are legal to buy. These two drugs which have been associated with physical collapse and hospital admissions. There are too many drugs becoming available for the Government to make them all illegal – there is a legal process to follow which is not immediate.

Are they purer?

Generally, yes. Part of the reason drugs like Mephedrone gained popularity so rapidly was because it was almost pure at a time when ecstasy and cocaine had fallen to about 20 percent and even below 10 percent in some cases.

What are research chemicals?

There are several different kinds of legal highs, some are synthetic cannabis types, and others are stimulant powders which are for short hand known as research chemicals. Their action and harms are very unpredictable. Many headshops will not stock them but they can be bought from internet suppliers.

What are the particular harms of Mephedrone (M-Cat)?

It is a new drug so there are not the same detailed studies as for ecstasy and cocaine. So we do not know. As a new drug it is not possible to know much about its long-term use. But we do know amphetamine stimulants accelerate the heart rate. Prolonged use increases the risk of damage to the heart particularly if mostly taken with alcohol. Combining it with alcohol can lead to blackouts where there is no recall of events for long periods. Taking alcohol and M-Cat can also lead to aggressive behaviour.

Taking mephedrone can cause a deep feeling of agitation, heart palpitations, skin rashes, insomnia, vomiting and headaches. Users who snort the drug can expect to get bad nose bleeds and facial ulcers.  Those who chose to ‘bomb’ it may find they develop gastric burns in their stomach.

The link to mental health problems appears to be quite strong for heavy users. The ‘down’ on M-Cat can be very intense and several suicides have been linked to heavy use. The few detailed studies on it indicate taking it more than just very occasionally can result in repeat dosing. Heavy prolonged use eventually leads to severe addiction. Addicts are sleep deprived, often have ulcerated mouths and suffer significant weight loss.

Does anyone inject these drugs?

It is relatively rare. Injecting drugs brings with it a whole different set of harms and dangers. Legal highs and club drugs are rarely injected, almost always snorted or bombed. Injecting without clean needles greatly increases the risk of blood borne viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis. One study carried out by St. James’s Hospital Dublin showed injecting mephedrone can cause tissue damage and abscesses which are highly damaging and extremely painful

What is difference between Mephedrone and Methadone?

These drugs are both powerful, synthetic controlled drugs but could hardly be more different in the effects and their physical appearance. Mephedrone is a strong, white powder stimulant. Methadone works as a sedative, is a green liquid used by addicts as a heroin substitute so there is also a risk of overdose.

Can any of these legal highs be smoked?

The synthetic cannabis drugs are meant to be smoked. Salvia and DMT are also usually smoked. Any drug which can be smoked gets into the blood stream much quicker than if it is snorted or bombed. Their effects are very much stronger than normal cannabis even stronger than skunk. These drugs are not for the casual smoker many people may find this a really unpleasant experience. They can make the person quite insensible and cause vomiting.

How long does it take to make a new drug illegal?

It used to take about 12 months but a new law in 2011 means the whole process can take just a few weeks. This link to the Home Office explains how it works.

Where else can I go for information on drugs?

The Government funded advice centre for drugs is TalktoFrank.

Erowid is anUS site with an encyclopedia of information on various drugs.

Crewe2000 is a Scottish site which offers impartial advice.

Where can I get legal advice?

The organisation Release provides independent legal advice on drugs and the law; this includes criminal offences; police powers; employment and education. Tel: 0845 4500 215 or 020 7324 2989 (open Monday – Friday 11am - 1pm & 2pm – 4pm).

Why is cannabis class B drug?

Cannabis was moved from Class B to C in 2004 on advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). It meant people (18 and over) would no longer be arrested and get a criminal record. The intention was also to make education messages on drugs more credible by having a better grouping of drugs of equivalent harms. The decision was reversed in 2009 against ACMD advice.

What is the difference between skunk and regular cannabis?

Until about ten years ago most of the cannabis inBritainwas imported hashish. It was from a variety of sources but most of it was hash fromMorocco. Since then home-grown skunk has become more dominant and is now about three-quarters of the market. Skunk (so-called because it s very smelly) is about double the strength of other types of cannabis and gives a harsher, more paranoid kind of high. It is grown in factories which can be rented or disused houses. Hundreds of plants are grown under hot lights. It sold mostly between friends.

Why is skunk so dangerous?

It is double the strength or stronger. High THC levels in skunk mean it is not a mellow, giggly smoke like cannabis from 70s and 80s. Users are more prone to paranoia and panic attacks. There is also a stronger relationship with schizophrenia and mental illness. Experts dispute how strong the link is but agree anyone with any mental problem including depression should not smoke any form of cannabis particularly skunk.

Is cannabis addictive?

Yes, it can be. Casual smokers will not become addicted and it is less addictive than many stimulants and any opium based drug. But people can become psychologically dependent if they become heavy users. Physical addiction can build over some months and years but does not happen quickly. About five percent of people presenting for treatment, cite cannabis as their primary drug.

Is cannabis use increasing?

No. The British Crime Survey shows cannabis use has fallen slowly and steadily since 1996. Among 16-24 year olds it is down by about a third in that period. There has been no proper research into this change; it may be a reaction against high strength skunk an attraction to other drugs or a general aversion to smoked products including tobacco.

Why is ecstasy class A?

Ecstasy was controlled in 1977 and its effects were equated with LSD which was already a Class A drug. All the most prevalent hallucinogenic drugs (hypnotics) were made Class A when the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was drawn up. This is at least in part because of international view of their harms at the time. They are now recognised by many scientists are considerably less harmful than addictive drugs like heroin. Hallucinogens are generally either not addictive or with low levels of addictiveness.

Will drugs ever be legalised or regulated in Britain?

Not in the foreseeable future. All political parties are opposed to relaxing controls. There are also international agreements which prevent it. There is some support in Parliament for adopting a Portuguese style experiment where all drugs were decriminalised in 2001; civil penalties and treatment are offered instead.

How does Angelus get to know about new drugs?

We are in touch other scientists acrossEurope who are aware of all the new drugs being circulated. They are also make great use of club amnesty bins such as at Ministry of Sound where people leave drugs they do not wish to take into a club.

What substances get mixed with these drugs?

Powders such as cocaine are often mixed with substances such as caffeine and lidocaine. They are known as adulterants which ‘bulk’ the dugs out. Tales of rat poison, ground glass and strychnine are largely myths. Some ‘legal’ highs contain Mephedrone which is a Class B drug.

What is a safe dose?

It is impossible to offer guidance on what amounts are safe. Many of these drugs have very varied strengths. If they are white-powdered stimulants then even a tiny amount can cause a bad reaction, particularly if that person is inexperienced and has been drinking. Generally speaking, the synthetic cannabis is much stronger than usual cannabis and can make you feel very trippy and very ill.

What sort of side effects are there?

Stimulants tend to cause people to feel miserable or even depressed the next day. Ketamine has serious long term effect on the bladder. Many of the drugs have addictive qualities. Taking drugs can have a damaging effect on your work and study. It often causes relationships to break up and strain put on family relations.

What does Ketamine do to your bladder?

The occasional use of Ketamine will, in all probability not harm your bladder. But regular users are taking a risk with addiction which can often lead to bladder problems – they can be severe and irreversible. Over time Ketamine, strips the lining of the bladder which is then passed in the urine. This is very painful. Anyone who finds they need to go to the loo more often and it hurts or they pass blood then they should seek help and stop taking it. Those who persist, find their bladders will shrink and harden and in some extreme cases become useless and a transplant required.

Is Ketamine a horse tranquiliser?

No, not as such. Almost every media report uses the term so it has become the short hand description. Ketamine is an anaesthetic used by vets before surgery on all sorts of animals. A tranquiliser is a drug such as valium. Ketamine is also used (rarely) medically in hospitals for severe and traumatic pain such as first degree burns or for amputation. It works because it is a dissociative which means it makes the person feel detached from what is happening to them like an out of body experience.

If Ketamine is so dangerous why do people take it?

It has been rising in use for 5-7 years. One of its attractions like many new drugs is that has higher purity than other more established drugs like ecstasy. It is taken at two different doses depending on how experienced the drug user is; the less experienced will take a relative small dose to feel some of the disassociative (out of body effects) and hallucinations, but people who take ketamine more regularly may take a bigger dose where they feel the full disassociation (K-Hole). To some, it may sound a novel experience but it can be highly disturbing with morbid feelings.

Which drugs can cause the body to overheat?

Some stimulants, particularly MDMA/Ecstasy, can cause the body’s temperature to soar. Often it is taken in a very hot club and it is not possible to control it easily, especially when the effects are a new experience. Not managing to get body temperature down, can damage the internal organs and leading you may physically collapse requiring medical help. The drug also makes people naturally thirsty. The temptation is to drink huge amounts of water which can be very harmful. Too much water affects the level of salts in your body and causes the brain to swell – it can be fatal. Most deaths associated from Ecstasy are from drinking too much water.

Is Benzo Fury going to be banned soon?

The Government (Home Office) will make any drug illegal if it looks harmful and is gaining in popularity. There have been no statements from Ministers about any particular drug they recognise as harmful and becoming a social problem. It is possible it will be Benzo Fury as it was linked to a death at a music festival in mid 2012.

How can anyone tell if someone is developing dependence?

The first signs of dependence are making choices in life which are simply about getting hold of more of a particular drug. Then the choices begin to harm work/study friends and family and yet it continues. Sleep patterns and general demeanour can change. People who are taking too much of any particular drug, and this includes alcohol, may start lying to people close to them and even stealing to help pay for their habit. It can cause some big arguments.

Taking the drug alone, means having reached another stage. Then the drug starts giving less pleasure and more is taken just to stop feeling bad. Moods will become dependant on whether the drug is available. There are likely to be physical signs as well. When someone starts supplying to friends to pay for their own habit then they are well on the way to developing an addiction.

Where is a good place to get help?

There are many local centres where you could access some advice and/or treatment. Your GP may also be a good place to start.

Here are some useful links:



What is the strongest drug?

There are a great many very powerful drugs which have very different effects. Some are legal, some illegal. Some like GBL can make people unconscious with a small dose. Some like methamphetamine are highly addictive. It is important to remember, the higher the strength of a drug does not mean it is a better experience. A comparison can be made with alcohol, an ice cold beer may be around five percent alcohol or a fine wine at 12 percent. Both are more enjoyable and more manageable than drinking neat industrial alcohol.

Why is GBL so dangerous?

GBL is a solvent used for industrial purposes. It requires very precise dosing, otherwise there is a risk of physical collapse. It is also extremely dangerous to take it after any amount of alcohol which can lead to coma or in some cases, death. There are some people who find they GBL is their drug of choice. After a few weeks they can develop a very high level of dependence. Treatment is very problematic; it is in some ways like treating extreme alcoholism.

Can you tell if people tell are high?

Drugs affect people in different ways but effects are very often obviously visible, particularly to someone who has not taken anything. Stimulants tend to make people more active or hyperactive. Cannabis can make the eyes bloodshot.

Can taking Mephedrone, make people feel a bit depressed the next day?

Generally speaking all stimulants can make people feel low after the ‘high’. Mephedrone appears to be associated with depression, particularly with people who have started taking it more regularly. Some try and recover their mood by taking more Mephedrone which is a bit of a vicious circle. Heavy users risk developing clinical depression or psychosis.

Can employers force people to have a drug test at work?

Drug testing is written into some contracts of work. So everyone should know about it already. Employers would not normally spring a test on any of their staff without first raising concerns through HR. Any job which has some aspect of public safety will involve random testing for drink and drugs, such as public transport. Some financial institutions (particularly American) insist on a test at the beginning of the job.

How long do drugs stay in the system?

Most drugs pass through the system in a day or two – that would include ecstasy, cocaine and Mephedrone. Ketamine lasts a bit longer (3-5 days) and cannabis much longer (2-4 weeks). After that time the drugs will not be detectable in blood tests but there are always traces which remain in the hair.