Legal Highs

There is so much information about legal highs that it can be confusing to know if these substances are safe to take.

What Are Legal Highs?

Legal highs, referred to as new psychoactive substances, are synthetic drugs manufactured to mimic the effects of other drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. 

These substances are made in uncontrolled labs, normally based in China and India, using a range of chemicals that are neither controlled nor tested for safety. Sold in shops and online, they can be found in various forms, including powder, pills, capsules, liquids and substances that can be smoked.  

Due to the regular change in chemicals used in these drugs, it is impossible to know exactly what they contain. If you take legal highs and suffer an adverse reaction, this makes it extremely difficult for medics to know what medications to use to treat your symptoms and increases the potential of serious long-term side effects and death. 

Are Legal Highs ‘Legal’?

Some well-known legal highs, such as the stimulant mephedrone, commonly called Meow Meow and the synthetic cannabinoids Spice and Black Mamba, are now banned and categorised as Class B substances in the UK. 

Most legal highs are now controlled under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, meaning they are illegal to possess or to supply to others. However, they are often marketed as “not for human consumption” and sold as innocent-sounding products, with various labels such as potpourri or incense, synthetic marijuana, bath salts, plant food or jewellery cleaner.

Although legal highs are sold as other substances to get around the law, they are still likely to be banned. But even if a substance is restricted, it is relatively easy for the chemists who design these drugs to alter one of the chemical structures and make a new substance that is legal to sell.

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Types of Legal Highs

Legal highs are synthetic substances that imitate the effects of the four main categories of illicit drugs or prescription medications. 

The four key types of legal highs or designer drugs are: 

1. Cannabinoids  

All synthetic cannabinoids are illegal to sell for human consumption in all forms. Despite this, they are still available to buy online in the form of potpourri or incense. 

Users vary from people who smoke cannabis and want an alternative product that is less expensive or easier to obtain to people who just want to try it and order it online. Because it is made to resemble plant matter and replicate the high and effects of cannabis or weed, dealers often mix synthetic cannabinoids with natural cannabis to make it go further. Consequently, many people do not even know they are smoking a synthetic cannabinoid. 

Addiction to synthetic cannabinoids can happen very quickly, with some people experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms after the first use. If you are a regular user of synthetic cannabinoids or smoke them to prevent or get rid of withdrawal symptoms, then you are suffering from addiction. 

2. Hallucinogens 

Synthetic hallucinogens are illegal and the popular psychedelic drug N,N-dipropyltryptamine (DPT), is categorised as a Class A substance in the UK. Yet it can still be obtained from online research chemical companies, along with other substances such as N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and Benzo Fury (6-APB, 6-(2-aminopropyl)benzofuran). 

These substances are typically available in tablet or powder form and are designed to produce similar effects to LSD, magic mushrooms, and ecstasy. 

Another popular hallucinogen that is still legal and easy to obtain is a plant called Salvia divinorum, also called Magic Mint and Sally D. Typically, its effects last for around eight hours and create altered perceptions, cause hallucinations, and induce feelings of euphoria.

3. Stimulants 

Legal high, synthetic stimulants have been created to replicate the effects of cocaine and crystal meth. Popular “legal highs” include mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone), also known as Meow Meow and M Cat and Flakka (alpha-PVP). Although they are illegal in the UK, they are often available as tablets or powders sold online. Effects can vary and last for different periods of time. However, they are associated with increased levels of energy and a sense of euphoria. 

4. Tranquilisers

Synthetic tranquilisers, such as gamma hydroxybutyrate (GBH) and Mexxy or methoxetamine (MXE), are two of the most common types of illegal “legal highs” in the UK. They can be bought online and are usually tablets. They have been designed to replicate ketamine and create a dreamlike, dissociated state of mind. 

Another drug known to give users a similar effects to ketamine that is becoming popular is called esketamine. This prescription medication is available in the form of a nasal spray and is prescribed for severe depression.

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What is Legal High Addiction?

Legal high addiction is as serious as addiction to illicit drugs and just as powerful. In fact, some legal highs, such as Flakka, are considered more powerful than the illicit drug they are designed to replicate.  

Because these designer drugs do not have the stigma associated with drugs such as crystal meth, crack cocaine or heroin, which are known to be addictive, many people are tempted to try them. These drugs are designed to mimic the effects of their illegal counterparts and generally cost less. 

Discussions about the effects of legal highs can be found on platforms like Reddit, and despite reports of tragic incidents and death, they continue to be popular. You only need to do a quick search to find these substances being sold online, even following the New Psychoactive Substances Act, introduced in 2016. 

Signs and Symptoms of Legal High Addiction

There are many different types of legal highs available. Due to how these drugs are manufactured, it is difficult to pinpoint specific effects for each one because the ingredients are not controlled and the chemical makeup changes constantly as manufacturers find more ways to circumvent the law. 

Below we have listed some of the common signs that someone may be using legal highs. 

Behavioural and social signs can include:

  • Becoming defensive and secretive when questioned 
  • A lack of inhibitions and engaging in risky behaviour
  • Isolating from family and friends and avoiding social events
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Downplaying the extent of drug use
  • Inability to function effectively and poor performance at work 
  • Poor personal hygiene. 

Physical symptoms can include:

  • High body temperature
  • Hyperthermia (low body temperature)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drastic weight loss or weight gain.

Psychological symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • High energy
  • Sedation or frequent drowsiness 
  • Mood swings 
  • Panic attacks and confusion 
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis (distorted sense of reality and perception)
  • Poor judgement
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Worsening existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress.

How Do I Know If I Am Addicted to Legal Highs?

If you take legal highs, you are likely to be addicted— especially if you are struggling with any of the symptoms below: 

  • Needing to take higher doses to achieve the same effects
  • Lack of control over the amount of time you spend obtaining, using, and attempting to recover from the effects of your “legal high” misuse
  • Prioritising legal highs over work and other responsibilities
  • Inability to stop using legal highs, even if you want to 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop.

Legal Highs and Overdose

There have been many reports of people suffering fatal overdoses due to taking legal highs. This could be because the drug contains a toxic substance or the user took too much in one go. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the ingredients of legal highs, it is also difficult for emergency services, such as paramedics and doctors, to identify which treatment is needed. 

This makes it extremely difficult for medical professionals to administer the correct medications and increases the potential of long-term serious side effects or death from an overdose. If you believe that you or someone you know may be experiencing an overdose of legal highs, it is essential to contact emergency services immediately. 

Mixing Legal Highs with Alcohol

Any risks associated with the use of legal highs are amplified when they are mixed with alcohol. Because there is no way of accurately knowing what these drugs contain, when you combine them with alcohol, reactions could be as severe as seizures, coma and even death.

Legal highs are known for being incredibly potent. To lower the risk of harm to yourself and others, you should avoid mixing them with other substances. If you are going to use legal highs, start by taking small amounts to test the effects and always make sure your mobile is fully charged and at hand in case you need to call the emergency services. 

Withdrawal Symptoms of Legal Highs

Continued use of any substance can result in the body developing a tolerance, which in turn leads to withdrawal symptoms once it is no longer present. However, due to the significant amount of new psychoactive drugs on the market, identifying withdrawal symptoms for each one is impossible due to the ever-changing chemical makeup of these drugs. 

But trying to stop using legal highs on your own can be extremely dangerous and severe withdrawal symptoms include seizures, coma and death.

Legal Highs Addiction Treatment

If you think you may be addicted to legal highs, you may wonder if you need addiction treatment. After all, these drugs aren’t the same as drugs like heroin and crack, are they? Well, the fact is, addiction to legal highs is just as serious as addiction to illicit drugs, and legal highs can be even more addictive than many of the illegal drugs they are created to mimic.

Addiction to legal highs generally results from the same reasons people use drugs like ecstasy and ketamine — a desire to escape everyday life or painful events and situations. You may also mistakenly take legal highs, such as Spice because you are told it’s natural cannabis. Dealers will also use legal highs to cut drugs like cocaine or sell them as the illicit drugs they replicate to increase their profit margins. 

Once you start to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, you may want to continue using legal highs so you can function. This is why addiction treatment for legal highs is often the only safe and realistic way to get clean. Addiction treatment can be in an outpatient addiction clinic or a residential rehab. The treatment you require will depend on how regularly and for how long you have taken legal highs. 

Residential Rehab for Legal Highs

Residential rehab is considered the most effective form of addiction treatment because your access to drugs is removed. At the beginning of your stay, you will typically complete a medically supervised detox, with medications to reduce the unpleasant effects of withdrawal symptoms and 24-hour supervision. 

Once you have completed your detox, you will participate in various therapies designed to help treat the psychological aspects of addiction and address any possible underlying causes.  

Outpatient Addiction Treatment for Legal Highs

Outpatient addiction treatment will generally involve attending an addiction clinic every day for therapy and receiving medication to help you during detox, which you will do at home. This can be an effective treatment if you have support at home, but because it does not remove you from environmental triggers and access to drugs, there is a higher associated rate of relapse

If you can not afford private addiction treatment, you can receive free treatment on the NHS. This will normally involve attending local drug and alcohol services and support groups.

At Step by Step Recovery, we offer addiction treatment for legal highs at our clinic in London and our residential rehab in Essex. Please call our friendly addiction support team on 0800 170 1222 for free, confidential advice or complete our online assessment form to discuss addiction treatment options for yourself or a loved one.


Legal highs are packaged for sale in many ways and are marketed as plant food, bath salts and research chemicals. Synthetic cannabinoids are often created to resemble natural cannabis while others appear to replicate other illicit pills and powders.

While the ingredients may be listed, they are often inaccurate and vary in purity. Many drugs that were previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone and synthetic cannabinoids.

This means that they are illegal to possess or to supply to others.

Legal highs produce incredibly intense highs because they are designed to mimic the effects of other widely used illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Legal highs are also cost much less and are easily accessible, which makes them an appealing alternative for drug users. However, these factors also mean they carry the risk of abuse and addiction. 

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Page revised in March 2023, by Matthew Reece, a certified PG cons diploma, a clinical Lead/ Senior counsellor at Step by Step Recovery.

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