When I began working with homeless people a few years back, I realized one of the issues these folk and we who help often had to deal with was that of substance misuse. It turned out though that the pre-dominant substance being misused was alcohol rather than drugs. Given what was being faced and the bleak prospects that many felt they were looking forward to, it was perhaps not a surprise when people turned to alcohol although it invariably became a confounding factor when trying to help and move them on.
I was aware of the various illegal drugs and their impact but because it was less an issue I focused my attention on alcohol. Sadly, when I have had to deal with drunk people, on a number of occasions I have had to bar those under the influence from using our facilities, like night shelters, which I was managing, out of consideration to other users and volunteers. However, recently, I have become more aware of those under the influence of drugs and even these being dealt or taken covertly on the premises I had responsibility for. I have also come to recognize people coming in with a certain glazed look, which I usually associated with those who were drunk but given tell-tell signs like smelling alcohol on the breath were absent it was harder to determine the cause. While alcohol misuse remains an issue,it appears that this has become less so and those susceptible to substance misuse turning their attentions to Legal Highs.
Recently, I came across a new category of drug, which is becoming increasingly popular among the homeless, and other groups e.g. young people – “Legal High”, aptly named because it is legal and does give a high, in much the same way that some banned drugs do. I have noted that there are many variations, often comprising similar ingredients, brightly packaged in order to attract customers. The danger often posed is sometimes similar to the potentially and actually dangerous consequences of well know illegal drugs, as those I work with, who have had to assist and call for medical attention to those who were suffering the effects have discovered. While I understand why some would want legal highs to be added to the list of banned substances, I realise the situation is often more complex than it might appear. Many of the ingredients in legal highs are easily available on prescription and over the counter at pharmacists. The problem is sometimes compounded, especially with rough sleepers, when taken along with prescribed medication and alcohol.
When I was out last night with Street Spirit, in the centre of my town, I spoke confidentially with two of my trusted ex-homeless friends, asking if they would kindly educate me further on the subject. They confirmed that Legal Highs were indeed readily available and pointed me to two shops within two hundred yards from where we were standing where these drugs could be purchased, and which were relatively cheap. I later discovered it is easily available via the Internet.They also told me that half of the people in their own homeless circle often took them and cited instances of some of the harmful effects that they witnessed. While there are different ways Legal Highs can be taken, the preferred method appears to be smoking, and given most rough sleepers smoke, it may not be easy to work out if tobacco or Legal High.
I write this to place a “stake in the ground” given my understanding of the subject is rudimentary yet it is one that won’t go away any time soon. At the same time, my associates will continue to have to pick up the pieces from the affects of taking legal highs and we will seek the best way to respond to this new form of drug taking. While I have focused on the homeless, it is likely other groups may be just as affected, for example college students. There is the complex matter of why Legal Highs are legal in the first place even though they can cause so much harm, and no doubt I expect I will be supporting those seeking to remedy this situation, like restricting availability, and helping those who are caught up in this damaging lifestyle.
I have no simple solution as to to how best to tackle the legal high or indeed any substance misuse matter. I wish I did having observed the consequences. I realise the temptation for those working with the homeless may be to respond with zero tolerance policies and extra policing, but I suggest our response needs to be proportionate and one based on tough love and wisdom. Addictive behavior among the homeless community in one form or the other has long been a significant issue and looks likely to remain so. Legal Highs is the latest in a long line of forms of substance misuse, and one that has recently come to the fore given its sharp rise in popularity, which in turn is but one form of addiction, gambling and pornography being perhaps the two other main areas that fuel addictive behaviour.
Common elements include pain, relief, thrill, yearning, availability, feel good factor (however fleeting) and the damaging aftermath. For people like me, besides practically helping such folk and try to steer them away from a life that is drug and alcohol dependent, I would want to share the message about the one who can set people free.