Legal Highs

Legal high is a term used for drugs that are alternatives to illegal drugs mimicking their effects.These drugs are not covered by international conventions (UN) nor being classified as an illegal substance under national law.

The most common substances known as legal highs are based on either synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones and piperazines or psychoactive plants.

The EMCDDA,and Europol reports that the number of new compounds reported in 2009 was higher than ever.

"A growing challenge" 

"The appearance of a large number of new unregulated synthetic compounds marketed on the Internet as ‘legal highs’ or ‘not for human consumption’ and specifically designed to circumvent drug controls presents a growing challenge to current approaches to monitoring, responding to and controlling the use of new psychoactive substances." (EMCDDA–Europol 2009 Annual Report) The EMCDDA is the European Commission drugs monitoring agency and Europol is the EU police agency.

These suibstances may range from magic mushroms, Incense, GHB, GBL, Salvia, Doves, "Spice", BZP and hallucinogenic substances. They are often readily available in head shops or through the internet - until they are banned. Several of these are already banned in some countries while not in others.

The emergence of new, smokable herbal products laced with synthetic cannabinoids (such as "Spice") and the growing popularity of various synthetic cathinones (such as mephedrone) can be seen as significant new developments in 2009 in the field of so-called ‘designer drugs’, better known now as ‘legal highs’, the EMCDDA and Europol report says.

Early warning and assessment

An international early warning system is established both under the EU and the UN in order to identify new psychoactive substance and its manufacture, trafficking, use and harm.

Internet - the new drug dealer

Researcher Ton Nabben of the University of Amsterdam confirms to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that the rapid spread of mephedrone was in part due to the internet. "Recent upheavals on the ecstasy market have contributed to the increased use of mephedrone in Europe", he says.

There was a sudden drop in quality of ecstasy which led to "a panic among consumers". At the same time, he says, there was a significant increase in the market price of cocaine. "So there was plenty of room for a new product." Nabben is amazed by the extremely rapid spread of mephedrone: "the illegal Internet marketing is very powerful. The drug has become the subject of a huge amount of interest in a relatively short time." 

"The internet has emerged as a new marketplace for psychoactive substances, providing retailers with the possibility of offering for sale alternatives to controlled drugs to a large public", the EMCDDA states in a report from 2009. The EU agency has identified 115 web sites that sell new psychoactive substances in Europe."


From June 2010, it will be against the law to carry or sell Kettamine, liquid ecstasy, Spice, Snow, Magic, Blow, Tapentadol, BZP derivatives and many more. Ireland has seen an explosion of head shops around the country last years that sell legal highs. Campaigns both at community level and national level have brought attention to the scale of the problem and caused the government to act.


Mephedrone was banned 22 April 2010.


After making head shops legal, a grass root campaign succeeded in reversing the decision and introduce a ban.

Many of these substances have no botanical basis and are not natural at all, as psychiatrist Eugen Hriscu explains to Radio Romania International:

“We are actually talking about hallucinogenic substances, newly synthesised drugs and those derived from common drugs such as cannabis and amphetamine. They have been slightly modified in order to dodge the prohibited substance list and make it onto the legal market.’’

In February the government adopted an emergency ordinance, banning 36 plants and substances that were included in the drugs category. Through this ordinance, people are banned from possessing or selling 27 substances and plants with hallucinatory effects.

United Kingdom

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is also to launch an urgent investigation into the whole range of legal highs now available in Britain. It will look at setting up an early warning system to identify new drugs that emerge on the market and quickly limit their spread, the Guardian reports. Mephedrone was banned in April.

Spice - mix of herbs with dangerous effects

The "legal high" spice or spice gold has caused alarm, it is a brand name for a herbal mix widely sold as an ‘incense’ or legal substitute for cannabis. The drug is widely sold on the internet. see reports in Science Daily here.

Countries banning 'Spice'

In November 2009, the European Monitoring Centre og Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reports that responding to potential health concerns, four EU Member States have taken diverse legal actions to ban or otherwise control ‘spice’ products and related compounds.

"Germany used emergency narcotics legislation to control five synthetic cannabinoids found in ‘spice’ for one year. France classified as narcotics six synthetic cannabinoids found in ‘spice’ products. Austria used its medicines act to prohibit smoking mixes containing six synthetic cannabinoids from being imported or marketed in the country. Luxembourg decided to control various synthetic cannabinoids as psychotropic substances. Poland amended the narcotic law, placing under control JWH-018 and two of the claimed herbal ingredients of ‘spice’." Se full report here including risk assessments.

Insence - designer cannabis

This substance that is still legal in many countries is similar to tetra hydra cannabinol or THC in cannabis - just much more powerful. In addition to being illegal in Germany, Insence has been banned in the Netherlands and its legality is under review in Austria. But scientists are still looking at what side effects the drug could have.

Toxicologist Dr John Ramsey, who runs the Tic Tac Communications drugs database at St George’s Medical School in London, said: “It’s not a problem at the moment, in that we’re not aware of casualties appearing in A&E, but there’s an underlying potential for a problem.”
He added that there were between 20 and 30 other similar substances that could be added to the incense mixtures.

Mephedrone - "Miaow/plant food"

Mephedrone is presently banned in Belgium, Israel, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland  and Great Britain

Mephedrone is sold freely on the internet as "plant food". It has caused several deaths already and authorities in several countries are considering to put it on the narcotic drugs list. On the Channel Island of Guernsey the use has spiralled out of control and authorities have told BBC News (in March 2010) they are considering classifying the synthetic stimulant possibly as a class A drug. Jersey, the neighbouring island banned mephedrone in December and listed it as a class C drug.

The British government has banned the drug in mid April 2010 as a class B drug. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugsin its report on mephedrone acknowledges the fact the drug has been found present at seven out of 18 postmortems into suspected deaths in England. It is still not confirmed that mephedrone was the leading cause of death.

Guernsey already introduced an import ban on mephedrone, which as restricted the drug being sold openly in shops. But in order for the law enforcement authorities and Customs to get the powers needed to go after the smuggling and sale it needs the drug to be listed as illegal narcotid drug. 

NRG-1 / Energy 1 

There are reports in the British press that a new drug called NRG 1, also called Energy 1, or Neuregulin is marketed to "replace" mephedrone. Its effects are largely unknown.

The chemical description of this drug is the "napthyl analogue of pyrovalerone". Pyrovalerone is already a banned class C drug in Britain. The Guardian writes that the drug is widely prescribed in France as an appetite suppressant. "The south-east Asian chemists who have flooded the market with mephedrone and with Spice, a herbal high similar to cannabis which was banned last month, have synthesised this new legal alternative, suppliers said."

Khat - cathinone

One of the latest "legal highs" to be found is based on cathinone, the active ingredient in the plant khat, commonly used as a stimulant in East Africa. Although cathinone is a controlled substance, scientists say these new compounds have been deliberately modified to circumvent the law.

"They are being sold as a safer alternative to ecstasy and I guess that there are a group of people who really want to engage with the dance scene and engage with their friends and don't want to break the law" John Ramsey from TIC TAC Communications based at St George's Hospital in south London tells BBC news.

UN moves against legal high

At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in early March this year UN Member States agreed on two resolutions against legal high, one on Spice and one on Poppers. Both resolutions raised concern over the spread of these substances and called upon Member States to consider banning them under national law.

The resolution on Poppers warns against its many health consequences. The resolution on Spice notes that several countries have already placed some synthetic cannabinoids in Spice products on the list of substances controlled under their national legislation. The UN calls upon Member States to “consider controlling the use of synthetic cannabinoids in Spice products by placing them on the list of substances under national control".

The EU considers actions

The EU level procedure can take up to a year or two or perhaps more from when the substance is reported to some sort of a ban is in place. A joint report by EMCDDA and Europol has recently been submitted to Member States and the EU institutions. The EU is currently (mid April) considering the next steps from here.