More than 280 potentially harmful legal highs are now available, with 73 new substances becoming available across Britain and Europe last year, according to a European drugs report which has been met with a mixed response in Manchester.
While the report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) shows that positive steps have been made in lowering the use of Class A drugs such as heroin, the rise of stores selling legal substances has now risen to almost 700 nationwide.
With Greater Manchester Police executing city-wide strategies to combat illegal drug use, some users have resorted to buying cheaper legal alternatives elsewhere.
Sarah McCarthy,* a clinical worker from Didsbury, has used legal highs since 2009 and insists they are safer than drinking alcohol or smoking cannabis.
She said: “If the number of new legal highs has risen, doesn’t it mean that less people are inclined to try harder and more dangerous drugs like heroin and crack?
“I have experimented with a few legal substances and I have never been in a position where I feel at danger or ill, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about.”
The report, released earlier this week, highlights a fundamental change in the way drugs are being consumed and purchased.
Colin Tyrie is a Senior Public Health Development Advisor on substance misuse at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust.
The Trust have promoted awareness of the dangers of internet drugs and ‘legal highs’ in the past, through the campaign ‘Do you really know what you’re getting?’
Drugs previously labeled ‘legal’, such as mephedrone (meow meow), ketamine and GHB, have been cited as contributing factors in the deaths of a number of people in the north west and nationwide.
These are now banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but Mr Tyrie said the increase in the number of drugs available ‘legally’ could have devastating consequences.
“Across the UK as a whole we are seeing a reduction in the absolute number of drug related deaths but we are seeing increases in deaths related to certain new and emerging drugs,” he said.
“We have a campaign to raise awareness of the risks of mixing drugs, whether legal, illegal, over the counter or prescribed, with alcohol.
“This ‘poly-drug’ use is one of the main causes of a drug-related death.
“We’re targeting people who don’t see themselves as ‘drug users’ but are at high risk due to the synergic effect of combined drugs and alcohol.”
It is the naivety of many young drug users that leads to serious illness as legal highs aren’t clearly marked, therefore people take far too much, argued one Manchester drug forum user.
Kelly James*, from Stockport, said: “Users don’t take the drugs seriously as they are sold legally.
She realised how dangerous new legal highs were when her partner’s brother ended up in hospital after a near death experience from ‘annihilation’, a substance gaining popularity in the UK for its similar effects to ecstasy.
“He went on a night out and smoked quite a lot of annihilation.” She said.
“He went to sleep and the next day ended up in hospital as he started having a seizure and his heart was pounding madly. I felt his chest and I think seeing him in that state was the most horrible thing I have seen.
“His heart stopped about 10 times and he is lucky that he is still alive.”
The report, conducted in Lisbon, said that cannabis use among teens had declined in recent years, along with cocaine consumption among adults.
However, it added that the internet has created an alternative route for supplying new drugs.
It also said today’s drugs market is more fluid and dynamic, and less structured around plant-based substances shipped over long distances to consumer markets in Europe.
*Name changed as source wished to remain anonymous