New psychoactive substances
Drugs containing one or more chemical substances that produce similar effects to drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy – and formerly known as 'legal highs'
What does it look like?
New psychoactive substances are sold in different forms such as powders, pills, smoking mixtures, liquids, capsules, or on perforated tabs.
The packaging is usually designed to get your attention using a catchy brand name and bright colours. It might describe a list of ingredients, but you can’t be sure that this is what’s inside.
The powders can range from white to brown to yellow in colour, and from flour-like to little crystals in consistency. The pills and capsules vary widely in size, shape and colour.
The smoking mixtures tend to come in colourful packaging, often with labels describing the contents as incense or herbal smoking mixture, and the contents look like dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings.
It’s common for synthetic cannabinoids to be added to dried herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings to make a smoking mixture.
New psychoactive substances (NPS) that come as powders, pills or capsules tend to be snorted or swallowed, while smoking mixtures are either smoked in a joint or spliff or by using a pipe.
There have been reports of some people injecting NPS. Injecting any drug is particularly dangerous because a drug is more likely to reach harmful or fatal levels by this route. Also, veins can be damaged by the injecting process and an abscess or blood clot may develop, which can then cause serious health problems like blood infection or heart problems.
Injecting can also lead to serious scarring and can be disabling or even fatal. Sharing injecting equipment such as needles or syringes, runs the additional risks of catching or spreading viruses such as HIV or hepatitis C.
How does it make you feel?
There’s not enough known about many of these drugs to know about their potency, their effects on people, or what happens when they’re used with other substances or alcohol.
The packaging might describe a list of ingredients but you can’t be sure that this is what’s inside. So you can’t really be sure of what you’ve bought or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends.
The main effects of almost all psychoactive drugs, including so-called legal highs, can be described using the four main categories below. While drugs in each of these categories will be similar in the effects they produce, they will have widely different strengths and effects on different people.
Hallucinogens or psychedelics (like N-bomb drugs) act like LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine and methoxetamine. They create altered perceptions and can make you hallucinate (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there). They can induce feelings of euphoria, warmth, ‘enlightenment’ and being detached from the world around.
Synthetic cannabinoids (like Spice or Black Mamba): act similarly to cannabis. The effects of these are similar to cannabis intoxication: relaxation, altered consciousness, disinhibition, a state of being energised and euphoria.
How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size and what other drugs you may have also taken.
Physical health risks
Many new psychoactive substances (NPS) are sold under brand names like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘Bliss’ and ‘Mary Jane’, and some have been linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions and, in some cases, deaths.
You can’t really be sure of what’s in a new psychoactive substance that you’ve bought, or been given, or what effect it’s likely to have on you or your friends.
Below are some of the risks broken down by type of new psychoactive substance. Many of these risks are increased if the drug is combined with alcohol or with another psychoactive drug. There have been cases of death too.
These can make you feel overconfident and disinhibited, induce feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, paranoia, and even cause psychosis, which can lead you to put your own safety at risk. This type of drugs can put a strain on your heart and nervous system. They may give your immune system a battering so you might get more colds, flu and sore throats. You may feel quite low for a while after you’ve stopped using them.
Downers or sedative NPS
These can reduce inhibitions and concentration, slow down your reactions and make you feel lethargic, forgetful or physically unsteady, placing you at risk of accidents. This type of drugs can also cause unconsciousness, coma and death, particularly when mixed with alcohol and/or with other downer drugs. Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking downers, and if a severe withdrawal syndrome develops in heavy drug users, it can be particularly dangerous and may need medical treatment.
These could lead to severe or even life-threatening intoxication when taken in sufficiently larger doses. They can also affect your central nervous system, and lead to seizures, fast heart rates, high blood pressure, sweating, increased body temperature, being agitated and being combative (ready to fight).
Mental health risks
Psychedelic or hallucinogenic NPS
New psychoactive substances that act like LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine and methoxetamine can cause confusion, panics and strong hallucinatory reactions (known as ‘bad trips’), and their effects can make you behave erratically and put your own safety at serious risk – including from self-harm.
These drugs can interfere with your judgement, which could put you at risk of acting carelessly or dangerously, and of hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.
What is new psychoactive substances cut with?
When you buy new psychoactive substances, you can never be sure that what you're buying is what it's claimed to be. Even if the packaging describes a list of ingredients, you can’t be sure that it contains the same substances.
Forensic testing of NPS has shown that they often contain different substances to what the packaging says, or mixtures of different substances. This means that you could end up taking a drug which has stronger or different effects and risks than you expected.
Can you get addicted?
Most stimulant and sedative drugs used recreationally have turned out to be addictive to some degree. So that regular NPS use, particularly drugs with sedative or stimulant effects, could potentially lead to a compulsion to use or even a risk of withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them.
Some people feel very anxious soon after they stop taking downer type drugs. If a severe downer withdrawal syndrome develops in a heavy drug user, it can be particularly dangerous and the person affected may need medical treatment.
Some volatile substances are covered by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which means it’s illegal to give away or sell.
There’s no penalty for possession, unless you’re in prison.
Supply and production can get you up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Like drink-driving, driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you’re caught driving under the influence, you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban, or prison sentence.
If the police catch people supplying illegal drugs in a home, club, bar or hostel, they can potentially prosecute the landlord, club owner or any other person concerned in the management of the premises.
Additional law details
Although some of these so-called ‘legal highs’ were legal in the past, since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in 2016, none of these drugs are legal to produce, supply or import for human consumption - even for personal use, e.g. over the internet.
This includes selling them or giving them away for free (even to friends) when they are going to be taken to get high.
New psychoactive substances might sound like an awkward term, but it’s more accurate than 'legal highs'. You’ll still hear people talking about legal highs, and as it’s a widely understood term you might still find it used on this site, but they're all illegal.
The so-called legal highs that were made illegal as class A, B or C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act, are still covered by that legislation. All other psychoactive substances not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act.