Edinburgh is rapidly becoming “the legal high capital of the UK”, according to MSPs, with as many as fifteen head stores selling New Psychotic Substances (NPS) across the city.
Deaths related to NPS have reportedly soared to 114 across the UK last year, a massive increase from just four in 2009.
And a BBC Scotland investigation has revealed that the Scotland-wide rate for ambulance calls related to legal highs has surged by 1,386% over the last five years with an average of six a day.
The Scottish Government says it is working closely with Westminster on new legislation to combat the issue.
Addressing Scottish parliament last Tuesday, Paul Wheelhouse, Community Safety Minister, said legal highs posed a “devastating impact on our communities”, adding he was “genuinely taken aback” at the number of individuals admitted to A&E as a result of legal highs.
Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell called Edinburgh “the legal high capital of the UK” and claimed NPSs have “horrendous consequences”, including “incidents of confirmed deaths, multiple amputations, paranoid delusions, attempted murders, suicidal tendencies and violent and sexual crimes.”
MSP Graeme Pearson agreed that legal highs were “a scourge and a growing menace that affects our society.”
MSP Dr Richard Simpson said: “Every weekend, in pubs, clubs and bedrooms, people are engaging in what are, in effect, phase 1 trials of new psychoactive substances.”
Head shops and online retailers label products as “not for human consumption”, or sell them as incense or research chemicals, to get around the law.
Marco Biagi, MSP for Edinburgh Central, told The Student: “It is completely reckless for traders to label dangerous substances as ‘not for human consumption’ and then sell them with a nod and a wink but without any understanding of the long-term health risks. People have no idea what they’re taking.
“NPS abuse has been a major problem in Edinburgh over the past year. Many of my constituents have contacted me with concerns over extreme anti-social behaviour brought on by NPS.”
Malcolm Chisolm, MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith, told The Student: “[I] am very concerned about the number of outlets in Edinburgh and am pleased that the forthcoming legislation will make it easier to put a stop to the sale of these dangerous substances.”
In interviews with the student body about their experiences, The Student found a number that had either encountered legal highs or had known others who did.
The students, all of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely, cited poppers, synthetic marijuana, “research chemicals” and party drug substitutes as amongst the most common types.
“Lots of my friends do poppers. I took them once at a party, it’s just kind of a head rush and it’s gone real quick. I’ve not heard any bad stories though” one student told The Student.
But others described far more negative experiences with NPSs.
One student recounted that a friend had been hospitalised as a result of an overdose on Methoxphenidine (MXP).
“The main problem is that there are tons of new legal highs released every month, and without doing tons of research you cannot really know what is safe and what isn’t” one student said.
Legal substitutes can often be more dangerous than illegal drugs.
One student told The Student: “People think that the synthetic legal versions are the same but they aren’t. In my experience with weed, it’s relaxing and helpful with my anxiety. The times I’ve tried the legal substitutes it has been very different. One particular time I was walking down a corridor and it felt like I was in one of those optical illusion tunnels.”
Some students admitted that they had continued to use legal highs despite having experienced serious side effects or sickness.
In May this year, five students at Lancaster University were rushed to hospital in critical condition after taking Spice, a brand of synthetic cannabis. In the US, scores of deaths and hospitalisations have been linked to the drug.
In April it was reported that NHS Lothian had seen 125 cases of infections as a result of ethulphenidate, a legal high sold as “Burst”, “Blue” or “Blue Stuff”.
Drug counselling charity Crew told The Student: “There is no doubt that New Psychoactive Substances are a risk to public health when they are on open sale with no accountable testing or quality control in production.
“Banning substances is likely to take their direct supply away from our high streets and potentially reduce some ‘impulse’ or curiosity purchases.
“However it is also likely to drive the market underground, leading to people buying from even less accountable vendors.
“The impact of the ban in reducing availability and use must be balanced with an acknowledgement that some sales will continue, and continue with the consumer having even less access to information on content. This is why education is so critical in equipping people with enough understanding of the real risks.”
One Edinburgh student told The Student: “I think the prevalence of legal highs and the popularity of them represent a wider problem regarding the rhetoric of how we as a country deal with heavy drug use. The phrase ‘legal’ in the minds of many equates to safe due to the powers that be forcing the assumption that drug use is a legal problem – when in fact, it is a health problem.”
Another agreed: “Drugs have always been a part of the human experience and the recent epidemic of legal highs isn’t any exception from the norm. People will always want to change their state of consciousness and simply making the substances that allow them to do that illegal won’t solve anything.”
The charity Crew offers free, confidential advice about legal highs, including harm reduction advice if people are determined to use.
Support and care is available via their online service at www.mycrew.org.uk and their Drop-in Shop on Cockburn Street.
Featured image: Flickr: “epSos.de”