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Legal_High_1

The highs and lows of taking legal substances

The government appears to have messed up the proposed ban on legal highs – here, we talk to users about the Psychoactive Substances Bill and their experiences with drugs

The proposed legal highs ban came off the back of sustained media outrage about substances such “hippie-crack” (laughing gas to most people), and after UK newspapers became full of more information on spice than a curry cookbook. Eventually, the government decided it had to act. But the road towards implementing the blanket ban has not been smooth. For a start, it has been near impossible to enforce the government’s definition of a psychoactive substance. It vaguely covers everything from alcohol and nicotine (which the government make a pretty penny from taxing) to food, which humans actually do need.

So, despite the build up, legal highs were not banned on April 6, so people who like legal highs have a bit more time to stock up. The controversial and public piece of legislation has prompted many to weigh in, from press and politicians through to prison guards. We decided to speak to the users, occasional and frequent, to see what they think of the ban.

CARA, 24

What legal high did you use the most?

Mephedrone – first around September 2009, and many many times thereafter! Continued occasionally after it became illegal. I got it from the indoor variety market in Enniskillen. We would walk in, 16/17-year-olds, in our uniforms after school and buy a bag for £20 a gram. We couldn’t even buy booze in our uniforms with ID, and we could do this without. After a while doing it, we found out we could get cheaper and stronger stuff off a dealer in town, so we began buying off a guy who bought it off the internet, from China apparently.

I knew absolutely fuck all beforehand! No information from the shopkeeper. A lot more safety advice from the dealer, actually. My first-ever experience was buying a gram, while drunk, from a delivery service in town. None of us had any experience or knowledge of what we were doing – we just knew other people we were out with were doing it. We were splitting the bag between four. I ended up sniffing a quarter of a gram in one line. If it had been two of us, I probably would have ended up sniffing a half, it could have been very dangerous, in retrospect.

I couldn’t see straight. I had an almost immediate urge to hear music so ran upstairs to the club. I was out with my boyfriend and best friend. The three of us were wired. We spent most of the night sitting talking ‘at’ one another. We all writhed and sweated profusely while sitting on the stairs for three hours. I felt a need to be touched and touch people. It was incredibly intense.

Have you or your friends ever had any bad experiences from legal highs?

Yes – too many to tell them all. I have seen many of my friends on many different drugs, but probably never seen people in such a mess as on some of the legal highs. Salvia has its fair share of well-merited horror stories. In one instance, a friend of mine was on a legal high (I can’t recall the name of it) then took a balloon. She got stuck in a three-day-long psychotic episode. I’ve seen many people take too many balloons before and never seen anything like it. Full on tripping for three days, no sleep, pupils fixed and massive. For three days. We thought she had broken her brain. Fucking scary.

What attracted you to it?

I could buy it with such ease! And, thereafter, it’s addictive.

“I ended up with fuck knows what. Sometimes it did nothing, and one time, I ended up awake for two days and had basically no feeling in my arms and legs for a full day” – Cara, 24

What are your opinions on the government’s decision to issue a blanket ban on all legal highs?

Similar to my opinion on the blanket ban on drugs currently classed as illegal. Although, my personal experience is that the legal highs that I and people I know have consumed actually appear to be more dangerous than the illegals. The possibility that these already legal drugs could be produced on the black market and potentially end up being more toxic needs to be taken into serious consideration. They will become more expensive, more difficult to come by, less pure, with the risk of a criminal record as a result of being caught using and abusing. People still have drug problems, whether or not the drugs are legal. People still use illegal drugs. Why would this be any different? It just increases the risk and probability that the final product, bought by the teenager out the back of that same bar I first bought ’drone, is buying something laced with rat poison and fuck knows what else.

Will the ban affect you in any way?

Not any more. The ban of ’drone in April 2010 did. I just ran a higher risk to buy a more dangerous product which cost me more money and fed money into the hands of small-time criminals. There were a number of times, soon after the ban, I was sold something that was supposed to be ’drone, because dealers knew the people who had been using and were hooked were desperate. I ended up with fuck knows what. Sometimes it did nothing, and one time, I ended up awake for two days and had basically no feeling in my arms and legs for a full day.

Would you do any legal highs once they become illegal?

Yes, maybe. But they’re dirty. I would feel much safer with the good old illegals I already know. I would imagine that (steering people towards the more well-known illegal drugs) is not the actual point, but I would hope, in a way, that this is what happens. Better the devil you know and, despite the difficulty in studying illegal drugs, due to their shelf-life, we still have a vague idea of how they may be impacting our health. Legal highs are changing so fast, we couldn’t keep up if we tried.

ISAAC, 22

What’s the weirdest legal high you’ve taken?

There was this medical testing product that my flatmates and I all tried ages ago. I can’t remember the name of it, it was used to treat something serious like cancer or something but apparently had psychedelic side-effects. Some dodgy guy online sold it to us. Salvia and poppers we’ve acquired legally before – it was really easy – from those shops that just sell weed paraphernalia. I don’t think they should be banned, but it won’t change behaviour if they are.

How was it?

Not overwhelmingly positive, actually. Really not that great. Certainly not a patch on their illegal cousins. We only really enjoyed it at all because it was a sunny day. I saw brightened colours, spots and squiggles, then got a long dull headache. To be fair, the only description we had was that it was an experimental pharmaceutical drug with potentially trippy side-effects. I would not recommend it. I mostly did it out of curiosity than lack of legal backlash. Balloons are the only good legal high. Drugs that become culturally well-established are ones with good effects – most legal highs people just take out of opportunism. I strongly doubt they’ll ever join the ranks of substances people commonly take out of enjoying the effect.

What do you think of the ban?

The legality has nothing to do with how good a drug is, just how easy it is for curious people to give them a go. The ban seems pretty futile. It’s so easy to get stuff anyway. I think the scaremongering in the media is simply the latest ridiculous development in an establishment that has no idea how to police recreational drug use sensibly. It’s probably better to focus attention on testing and regulating the legal ones and decriminalising illegal ones.

People are probably taking legal highs as a response to the heavy-handed law on drugs. It’s hard to generalise but I can’t imagine someone would take spice if actual weed was a non-scaremongered legal alternative. Psychoactive substances should be tested by scientists and epidemiologists to see how harmful they are and legality decisions based on that alone.

“Drugs that become culturally well-established are ones with good effects – most legal highs people just take out of opportunism. I strongly doubt they’ll ever join the ranks of substances people commonly take out of enjoying the effect” – Isaac, 22

RACHEL, 22

What was your first experience with a legal high?

The first time I took a legal high was when I was 17, and I did it dozens of times for nearly a year. I bought it from a store near my house, one of those weird bong shops you get in Camden. I didn’t know much about it because, looking back, I was irresponsible about it. I didn’t ask for any advice from the shopkeeper. It was synthetic weed called ‘Mr Nice Guy’ and it had a smiley face with crosses for eyes. That was pretty apt for what it did to you. I read the back of the sachet and it essentially said to add a little bit of the product into a bowl or a blunt and smoke it – that’s it.

I mostly smoked it out of a bowl pipe or rolled it into blunts. I would also smoke it pure and not mix it in with tobacco – I didn’t even know loose tobacco was a thing until I moved to the UK (I’m from Miami). It was really intense. A lot more intense than smoking normal weed. With ‘Mr Nice Guy’, you would take two hits and be instantly high. I feel like the high of weed is more gradual, more crooning. It made me feel like I wasn’t touching anything, like there was a constant distance between me and everything. Everything I said I heard back in third person and that used to freak me out because I hate the sound of my own voice. With synthetic highs, you could really tell that it had absolutely no natural purposes – it was there just to get you exaggeratedly high, whereas weed is obviously a natural substance.

What attracted you to it rather than actual weed?

To be honest, it was how cheap it was. I was a senior in high school and had a car to pay gas for, so buying expensive weed just wasn’t sustainable. I could take three hits of it and be out of my mind. At the time, I was in the weird in-between stage between graduating and being an ‘adult’, so this was the only thing to do. Suburban towns can be bleak.

What are your opinions on the government’s decision to issue a blanket ban on all legal highs?

It might make a difference in the short term because it’s less accessible to people, but if someone wants to get high, they’ll find a way. I think overall it’s more important to educate people and be tolerant so they don’t have a kneejerk reaction to a new ban and put themselves in danger because of it. The government is really naive to think that the kids who are doing drugs would even trust or obey them in the first place – we’re usually the most disillusioned.

If you were to do drugs again, would you choose the cheap legal highs or the illegal real deal?

In all honesty, real drugs are way better. I’ve seen my friends have awful episodes on legal highs because they’ve smoked the same amount they would have (with) normal weed. I’m sure there’s a psychological reason behind the knowledge that not only what you’re doing isn’t meant to be in your body, but that it was something someone deliberately made to disorient you. I’m pretty cynical about drug bans though, it won’t stop anyone. Remember when ’drone got banned a few years ago? I could still find it 2016 in about two phone calls if I wanted to.

“I was a senior in high school and had a car to pay gas for, so buying expensive weed just wasn’t sustainable. I could take three hits of it and be out of my mind” – Rachel, 22

GEORGE, 22

What did you take?

It was called 5APB, we took it at a festival. My friend Elliot got it off the internet as we’d seen information about it online. It was a powder, so you could sniff it or bomb it. It was a completely different gravy from MDMA. It was a lot of fun. Reviews said it was safe and the effects were good. I was spaced out but it made me feel really good. It was a really extended high though, it lasted for ages. It was way more controlled than MDMA, like you’re not off your face gurning. You could actually hold a normal conversation without having your eyes rolling in your head but at the same time ... I wouldn’t do it again because I feel like we were lucky.

What do you think about it becoming illegal?

I think the legality made it attractive because it could be ordered with zero prang. Really, it was the only reason why we bought it – it was more obtainable. So if it was banned we probably wouldn't have bothered. If I had the opportunity to do it again i probably wouldn't. No one really knows what it is or what the effects are. I think we were lucky.

GABRIEL, 21

What did you take?

I’ve smashed some salvia in the past. Back when I was 17. It was the strangest thing I've ever touched. Was like the intensity of acid for about ten minutes.

What happened?

I bought it from a smoke shop in Croydon and did it about three times over the course of two months. The person in the shop didn’t tell me much, they just sold it to me and told me to use a bong. I think the assumption is if you are actively buying them then you've done the research. I just watched bare YouTube videos of people’s salvia reactions. Being young and impressionable I wanted to try it! You light it up in a bong. It kicks in fairly instantaneously, after one hit I was seeing my friends head as a wolf’s head. I was rocking back and forth laughing hysterically. Every time I closed my eyes there were very intense colour visuals. My friends thought the one who was high always looked possessed. We all went one at a time to see how we would react. It was just bizarre. It wasn’t like an intense fun high like on mushrooms, you’re pretty out of control of your own actions. It’s definitely put me off acid.

Should it be banned? What’s your opinion on the law

Yeah it should. They are very easy to get. It’s a lot harder to get illegal drugs online than legal drugs, I’ve tried. The legality of it made me think it would be safe. Actually, I think legal ones are far less stable. Not that many people had taken it before, that’s the problem with legal highs in general. If I could go back to 17 and salvia was illegal, I 100 per cent think I wouldn’t have taken it.

I think you might as well do a blanket ban. Dealers might stock up but will also stock up on what is popular. The ban would limit a niche market and will generally deter more people from trying to source them. Also a dealer is only going to source drugs he can sell. So unless legal highs suddenly become more popular than the real drugs they imitate, banning them for now does make sense. It will detract those casual users who can cope without it at a party. Maybe it will just make the prices higher. I do think it would do some good.  

“We didn’t know much about laughing gas before we had it, the shopkeeper didn’t say anything about it. But it's not like they really care. I figured it out, I just do them until I feel like I probably should stop or I feel like I might die” – Kiara, 22

KIARA, 22

Tell me about your love of laughing gas.

I started having balloons when I was 18 because everyone was doing them after a night out. I’ve done it maybe about 50 times, meaning I’ve probably had about 1000 canisters by now. The reason I keep doing it is probably because it gives you one of the best visual highs I've ever had. That and it is so cheap. I get them from a little shop in Sheffield where you have to pretend you're baking cakes or something. The guy gave me the 'code words' once but I never remember them. Actually, the last time we went into the shop my mate just said 'look mate I can't remember the stupid fucking code, just give me some balloons'. Of course he gave it to us.

We didn’t know much about laughing gas before we had it, the shopkeeper didn’t say anything about it. But it's not like they really care. I figured it out, I just do them until I feel like I probably should stop or I feel like I might die.

I guess it's just quite relaxing – even better if you're on other stuff too, namely ketamine or MDMA. Visuals are great and I always feel like I'm really close to some sort of greater understanding of life, but then I come round and remember I'm just the same fat, hairy, stupid loser I was before I inhaled my 5th double in a row.

Have you or your friends ever had any bad experiences from legal highs including and excluding laughing gas?

No, good times only. One weekend I did feel like I didn’t have oxygen in my brain for a dangerous amount of time and felt considerable dumber and slower for about a week. But any bad times have not been the drugs fault. It’s important to remember that.

What are your opinions on the government’s decision to issue a blanket ban on all legal highs?

Legal highs, illegal highs. Tom-ar-to,Tom-a-to. People do what they want really so I don't think anything will change.

This is probably the end of the happy balloon seller at parties. Does the possible seven year jail sentence seem like overkill?

Selling them in prison will be more interesting. I like a challenge.