Published on February 18, 2014 | by Caroline Schmitt


Deaths from legal high drugs soar in five years

Display of herbal drugs

Medical experts are calling for radical changes to how legal highs are handled to ensure public safety. [Flickr: avlxyz]

The number of deaths where legal high drugs are implicated  has jumped according to The National Programme on Substance Deaths.

In 2009, there were 10 deaths in the UK related to people abusing psychoactive substances, such as Meow or Benzo Fury. In 2012, there were 68.

The same researchers, based at St George’s, University of London, say there has also been a big rise in the number of times legal highs has been mentioned as a cause of death along with alcohol and other drugs, from 12 in 2009 to 97 in 2012.

However, the overall number of drug-related deaths decreased from 2,000 to 1,613 over the same period.

The majority of these psychoactive substances are freely available online. Their trade and consumption is legal, as long as the product’s packaging is marked as “not for human consumption”.

Because the packaging rarely gives much information on the ingredients used to make the substance, consumers cannot be sure what their exact chemical composition is and whether parts of it are potentially harmful.


A second year student at LCF, who did not wish to be identified, spoke about her experience with a herbal ecstasy which was ordered online:

“My friend had a house party and we had a chilled night, but obviously we didn’t only drink beer. None of us had any unexpected side effects [from the legal high] but after a while, we noticed that one of us had completely stopped functioning.

“He seemed to be awake because his eyes were wide open, but he was staring at the wall for a full eight hours without moving one bit. It was really scary. We obviously couldn’t leave him alone and once he was properly awake again at around 4pm the next day, we were like ‘thanks for the ruined night, mate’,” she added.

Because the use of legal highs has escalated in the last three years, medical experts have called for radical changes in tackling the deadly risks. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) made efforts to monitor and then ban new psychoactive substances via an early-warning system.


But even if chemicals become identified as potentially deadly and are subsequently banned, similar mixtures with different names appear on the market almost immediately.

“He seemed to be awake because his eyes were wide open, but he was staring at the wall for a full eight hours without moving one bit. It was really scary.” LCF student

John Corkery, co-author of the report at St George’s, also concluded after analysing post-mortem results that a combination of different drugs is to blame for some of the 68 deaths. He told the BBC:

“[In] many cases it’s a combination of other substances including alcohol, but particularly stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy.”

18-year-old Ellie Rowe died last summer after taking ketamine at a festival in Winchester. Following this incident, it emerged last week that the drug, commonly known as Special K, will be regraded from class C to B.

If you have questions or need advice regarding legal highs, please visit the Frank website, or contact your GP.




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