What Are “Legal Highs”?

Don’t let the name fool you – legal highs are not necessarily legal. In 2010, some legal highs became illegal in the United States, based on information from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As a result, these herbal highs became Schedule I controlled substances, which means they are illegal and have no permitted medical uses.

Legal highs are another name for designer drugs or research chemicals and refer to synthetic drugs created to mimic the effects of a naturally-derived drug. These substances are usually created in underground laboratories and involve mixing different ingredients together, each of which tends to be legal on their own.

What Are Legal Highs?

Legal highs can refer to various psychoactive drugs and can mimic the effects of morphine, marijuana, cocaine, and more. Effects range from feeling energized (from stimulants) to making users euphoric and relaxed (from sedatives) to creating hallucinations (from psychedelics).

These drugs are sold in various forms including pills, powders, and tabs. The ingredients used in legal highs are usually bought and sold legally, making the resulting substance technically legal – insofar as it’s not technically illegal, either.

When sold, these designer drugs are often labelled as “not for human consumption” and may be sold as “plant food”, “bath salts”, or “incense”. They are often sold with exciting names and in eye-catching packaging to gain customers’ attention. They are legal and inexpensive but can be deadly.

Ingredients in these substances often vary as the manufacturer tries to take advantage of loopholes in the law. Some of the most common active components in these drugs include piperazine, tryptamine, phenethylamine, and cathinone derivatives. A variety of the ingredients are illegal, but others are not.

You may have heard the names of some legal herbal highs such as spice, K2, or bath salts. The problem is that the ingredients in these substances haven’t been tested for safety, so the outcomes may vary.

Some of the adverse effects of legal highs may include:

  • Paranoia
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Death

What Forms Do Legal Highs in the US Come In?

Legal highs are composed of capsules, powders, or pills in many cases. These can be in all sorts of colors, ranging from brown to white and yellow to pink. These capsules and pills also come in various sizes and shapes and may be stamped with attractive images.

Synthetic cannabinoids, like spice and K2, are made of plant matter and synthetic cannabinoids. The chemicals may be dissolved in solvents or in a powdered form. This legal high is often called “herbal incense.”

Cathinones, such as bath salts, are stimulants made to act like speed or amphetamine. Items like “molly” are made to act like ecstasy and often contain methylone, mephedrone, and methylenedioxypyrovalerone.

Synthetic opioids also exist, such as fentanyl, and can be highly dangerous. Some of the street names for these legal highs include China White, Murder 8, Friend, and Goodfella.

Why Are Legal Highs Legal By Law?

As these drugs are synthesized by combining various legal ingredients, authorities in countries all around the world have essentially been playing “catch up” with the drug manufacturers when it comes to controlling them.

In the United States, the Controlled Substance Analogue of 1986 was enacted to try to ban these drugs preemptively by making it illegal to “manufacture, sell, or possess chemicals that were substantially similar in chemistry and pharmacology to Schedule I or Schedule II drugs.”

In some cases, substances are covered through the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. These drugs are illegal to sell or give to others. However, there is no possession penalty except among individuals in jail or prison. In addition, these drugs are not legal to supply, import, or crate for human consumption, even if it’s for personal use.

As with driving after drinking, driving under the influence of legal highs is illegal and can be dangerous. Those caught driving while high could receive a prison sentence, heavy fines, a driving ban, or several of these consequences.

What Are the Risks of Legal Highs?

Just because they’re kind of legal doesn’t mean legal highs are any safer than other drugs. In fact, they may actually be even more dangerous.

You may have heard of the New York City “zombie outbreak” in 2016. That summer, many people had taken a drug that caused zombie-like symptoms including extra-slow response times and blank stares. What caused the zombie outbreak was mass intoxication on a drug called AK-47 24 Karat Gold, a type of synthetic marijuana: a legal high.

In reality, not enough is known about these drugs to confidently say anything about their potency, their side effects, or what happens when you mix legal highs with other drugs or alcohol. Some cases of this behavior have led to comas, breathing trouble, and death. This has been an even more considerable risk for those with heart conditions, epilepsy, high blood pressure, or asthma.

Even if the packaging includes a list of ingredients, you can’t be sure that’s actually what’s inside these drugs, since the manufacturers are constantly changing their recipes to keep them “legal”.

Most legal highs have only been on the market for a few years and aren’t tested to typical food and drink standards. This makes it possible that they have ingredients that lead to long-term issues, such as liver disease, cancer, and dementia.

Additional Risks of Legal Highs

In addition to these risks of the unknown, legal highs carry the same risks that other drugs do. These risks include:

AddictionThe risk of developing an addiction to a legal high varies depending on the type of drug a person is consuming. For example, certain psychedelic drugs like LSD don’t typically carry a high risk of addiction (though a tolerance can undoubtedly be developed). At the same time, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have an extremely high potential for causing addiction.

Overdose The underground nature of synthesizing legal highs means that the drugs are not tested or regulated before going on the market. Ingredients and potency can vary drastically, so it may be difficult for users to determine what size of a dose is acceptable to take without causing an overdose.

Adverse health effects – Due to the lack of testing for safety, users can’t be certain what the outcome of using these substances will be. Seizures, paranoia, and comas may all result from legal highs.

Overheating and dehydration – Taking legal highs and dancing or otherwise being physical for long periods of time can lead to dehydration. Therefore, it’s essential to consume lots of water and take breaks. Not doing so can lead to health issues or the need to visit an emergency room.

Seeking Help to Stop Using Legal Highs in the USA

Legal highs can be more dangerous than some illegal substances. People believe that because some of these drugs are legal, they are safe for consumption. This leads to ease of use in obtaining them. Many drug abusers choose to try these drugs as an act of novelty and a wish to feel exciting sensations.

If you or someone you love is struggling with the use of legal highs or any other substance, know that help is out there. At Any Length, we have trained recovery specialists standing by, ready to help anyone on their journey toward lifelong recovery. To start on this journey, give us a call today at (512) 746-7036.



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Healing from substance use disorder isn’t linear, but it does always start with taking the first step. Our team of caring admissions specialists are here for you 24/7. Please, reach out, and let us guide you towards freedom and a new way of life.

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