The Social Science of the World in 100 objects – Legal Highs

Legal Drugs: all the pros and none of the cons

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

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.

By Tammy Ayres, Department of Criminology, University of Leicester.


One Comment

  1. Gus Dinn
    Posted 13/05/2013 at 09:19 | Permalink

    Certainly an interesting and topical debate. We all know that the legal drugs which governments generate income from (nicotine, alcohol) are some of the most deadly and socially destructive in the world today. Therefore I suggest it is unwise to use ‘legality’ as a measure of potential damage to society and the individual. It matters not whether legal highs contain banned or legal substances, the law is not the best judge of risk in these matters. Incidentally, if the chemical analyses were conducted today the results would be likely to be quite different as manufacturers constantly evolve their products to skirt the law. It is true that users of ‘legal highs’ do not know what they are buying and these types of drugs can damage health, yet smokers know exactly what they are buying and still choose to do so. Full information allowing users to take their own decisions over risk is a far more helpful than the prohibition of Britain’s failed drug policies. What is also not helpful in this debate is unfounded generalisations regarding potential risk ‘anecdotal evidence’ is not sufficient. What little genuine evidence that does exist suggests that most legal highs, on their own, are no more dangerous than many of the illegal and legal drugs we already know about. Since this is a social science forum, a final word on damage to society. Shortly before the most famous legal high ‘mephedrone’ was banned, health agencies were reporting record lows in cocaine use amongst their clients. Users were staying at home, ordering relatively reliable product over the internet. This meant they were not having to interact with the drug dealers, criminality, violence, economic exploitation, and misery caused by the planet’s most popular drug. Surely a good thing for society.


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