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Legal Highs: Effects, Symptoms & Treatment

Girl smoking outside

Legal highs are a major news item of late, but what are they and what dangers do they pose? This guide to legal highs will help you get up to speed and see just how dangerous these substances are, as well as what the best options are for rehabilitation and treatment. Let’s take a look:

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What Are Legal Highs?

The simplest answer is that legal highs, also sometimes known as ‘designer drugs’ are a blanket term used to describe any synthetic psychoactive substance that isn’t strictly banned.

Legal highs first became highly popular around 2003 but have been around in principle for decades if not centuries.

They represent a way of synthetically producing new psychoactive chemicals that have similar effects to illegal drugs but aren’t officially illegal. Legislators have struggled with legal highs because they can be created more quickly than laws can, so for example if a new legal high is outlawed, the scientists behind creating it can just alter the molecular structure slightly, creating a new chemical that is legal but has very similar effects.

This can be done on a daily or weekly basis making the process of banning individual substances too slow and ineffective. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was brought in in an attempt to combat legal highs, banning all psychoactive drugs regardless of their make up.

While it worked to an extent and legal highs are now rarely on sale in reputable stores, it arguably just pushed them underground, forcing customers to go to drug dealers to purchase them and drastically reducing the reliability of listed ingredients.

Another issue raised is that it’s fairly easy to get past the ban by selling psychoactive substances marked as “plant food” or “bath salts” or even “not for human consumption”.

Examples of Legal Highs

Here is a legal highs list based around the most commonly seen substances on the UK streets.  Despite this, due to the rapidly changing nature of legal highs, it’s entirely possible you may encounter completely different ones in your local area.

Synthetic Stimulants like Mephedrone or MCAT

Mephedrone or MCAT is one of the most well-known legal highs. There are a wide range of brand names around including titles create to attract buyers such as Flakka, Bliss, Cloud 9 and Bubble. Synthetic stimulants are often called “bath salts” and aim to imitate recreational stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines.

They typically take the form of white, cream or brown coloured crystallised powder, but can vary to almost any colour depending on the ingredients. The powder is usually snorted but can also be smoked, injected or swallowed.

Synthetic Cannabinoids Like Spice

Synthetic cannabinoids are synthetic psychoactive chemicals that are sprayed onto herbal tobacco or other dried plants in order to be smoked. While smoking is the most common way to take them, they can also be brewed into a tea, or the chemicals that are typically sprayed onto the plant can be applied to real marijuana.

They are sometimes called “synthetic marijuana” or “synthetic weed” because the chemicals used are related to the ones found in the marijuana plant. Because of this, they are often marketed as a safe option for people who don’t wish to smoke real marijuana. This causes many problems as synthetic cannabis typically has a much more damaging effect on the brain than the real thing, and can often be life-threatening even without taking into account the risks involved with never being 100% sure what the substance contains.

The most popular of synthetic cannabinoids is called ‘Spice’ and has been a major fixture in the news of late due to its popularity in the homeless community and the extreme debilitation it causes, but there are plenty of other synthetic cannabinoids out there with names like K2, Black Mama, Annihilation, Herbal Incense and more.

Out of all legal highs, synthetic cannabinoids are arguably the most dangerous due to their seeming innocence, the growing social acceptance of natural cannabis and the fact many of them are marketed as “natural herbs”. This creates an idea that the substances are somewhat safe compared to both illegal drugs and other legal highs, when if anything the opposite is true.

Find out about cannabis withdrawals signs and symptoms.

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Synthetic Hallucinogens

Synthetic hallucinogens are laboratory-made alternatives to hallucinogenic drugs like magic mushrooms and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). While they are attempts to chemically simulate such substances, natural hallucinogens typically come from natural sources like fungus, and the chemicals involved in synthetic hallucinogens are actually much closer to amphetamines in terms of their chemical composition.

N-methoxybenzyl (NBOMe) is the most common which has led to the term “N-bombs” being commonly used, even for other synthetic hallucinogens. These substances are incredibly dangerous due to the combination of a lack of reliable ingredients and the fact they are a brain-altering substance.

But what are some of the effects legal highs can have?

Effects & Side Effects of Legal Highs

This is a difficult topic to be 100% accurate on. Whereas established illegal drugs like cocainecannabisecstasy and amphetamines have decades of research into their effects, side effects and treatments, legal highs spring up and disappear too quickly for this to be possible.

Not only that, but the ingredients change every time, and the ones listed on the packaging are often completely false, potentially even containing illegal substances after all. This means the effects, side effects and health risks caused by legal highs are wildly unpredictable.

Effects of Synthetic Stimulants

There hasn’t been enough studies into the effects of synthetic stimulants on the brain, and when you add that to the unpredictability mentioned above, using these substances is a tremendous risk. While they are chemically similar to other stimulants like cocaine and MDMA, there can be extreme changes in quantities or strength of certain ingredients.

For example, MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone), a common ingredient in many synthetic stimulant legal highs, has similar effects to cocaine but with over ten times the strength.

Here are some of the effects commonly found in users of synthetic stimulants:

  • Paranoia
  • Changed sex drive
  • Agitation or aggression
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Kidney failure
  • In the worst cases, death

Synthetic stimulants are also extremely addictive and can cause major withdrawal symptoms. We will go into this some more a little further down, but if you or anybody you know is struggling with addiction to legal highs, please call us now on 0203 151 1280 for expert professional advice on how best to tackle your addiction and get your life back on track.

Effects of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids affect the same receptors in the brain as real cannabis. While studies on the effects are still fairly immature, we do know that they tend to bind much more strongly to the brain cell receptors than normal/organic cannabis does. This makes the effects much stronger and less predictable. They can also change from batch to batch due to updated compositions.

Effects of synthetic cannabinoids can include:

  • Relaxed/happy feeling
  • Hallucinations
  • Changed perception (sense of colours, surrounding environment etc)
  • Extreme anxiety bordering on pure terror
  • Confusion

In the more extreme cases, Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids have been known to cause effects such as:

  • Violent behaviour
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • The famous “spice zombie” trance
  • Death

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Effects of Synthetic Hallucinogens

Synthetic hallucinogens work by altering the brain’s serotonin levels. This means mood swings are incredibly common among users as serotonin is part of the brain’s mood regulation system.

 Other effects include:

  • Changes in sexual behaviour
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes to sensory perception, occasionally becoming sensitive to or overwhelmed by too much stimulus
  • Changed sense of time
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Panic or paranoia
  • Irrational behaviour

Synthetic hallucinogens tend to be way more dangerous than the natural forms, as they can cause more serious effects not commonly associated with hallucinogens such as cardiac arrest, seizures, comas and even death.

Are Legal Highs Addictive?

Absolutely. In fact, due to the often much higher strengths or doses, legal highs can be more addictive than the most common illegal drugs. Prolonged use of legal highs can lead to serious physical dependence, paranoia and even psychosis.

Legal Highs Addiction & Withdrawal Treatment Options

The most successful treatment and detoxification options for legal highs are typically the same as they are for illegal drugs. A mixture of a supervised detox program, holistic therapies and CBT(cognitive behavioural therapy) is a proven and reliable route.

Of course, the first and most important step is admitting you have a problem and looking for advice. So if you or somebody you care for is addicted to or has a habit of taking any form of legal highs or synthetic drugs, the best thing you can do for yourself or them is to give us a call now on 0203 151 1280.

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We understand that taking the decision to commit to rehab can be difficult, you can schedule a tour of one your local rehab centers to see the available facilities, resources and environment. This can help you with taking the first steps towards your rehabilitation.


  • Continuously taking drugs that are no longer needed for a health problem
  • Building up a tolerance against the drugs
  • Feel shaky, depressed, stomachaches, intense sweating, headaches and more intense symptoms when the drugs wear off
  • Even when drug addiction is hurting your loved ones, you still can’t stop
  • You spend time thinking about how to get drugs, when to take it, how good it feels.
  • Having a hard time giving yourself limitations to drug use
  • Losing interest in extracurricular or social activities that don’t involve drugs
  • Losing priority over personal & professional responsibilities
  • You borrow or steal money to pay for drugs
  • Having trouble to get along with loved ones and colleagues. They complain about your actions or how you’ve changed.
  • Sleeping and eating too much or too little
  • Drug addiction reflects on your physical appearance. Bloodshot eyes, bad breath, tremors, blood nose, or you may have gained or lost weight.
  • You have a new set of friends with whom you do drugs and go to different places to use the drugs.
  • Drug inpatient detox
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We have rehab and detox clinics all across the UK to help you on your journey to recovery. Click here to find rehab centres & facilities near you.

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The best way to get started is to give us a call at 0800 118 2892 for free advice and assessment. Let us help you or your loved one figure out the best treatment plan for your alcohol addiction so you can get started on your journey to recovery.

  • Keep track of the volume of your drug use to have a better understanding of the role of drug addiction in your life.
  • Consider the impact of your drug use to the things that matter most to you, such as your partner, your children, your career and your health.
  • Consider getting advice from a person you trust about your drug use.
  • Remind yourself of the reasons why you want to change for the better.
  • Analyse your attempts at recovery. What worked and what didn’t?
  • Set specific, measurable goals, such as time and limitations you’ve made to recover from drug addiction.
  • Consider to open up to your loved ones that you’re committing to recovery and seek for their support.