Just over a year ago, I came across the phenomenon called Legal Highs, aptly named given these are substances with stimulant or mood-altering properties (which among other things create a short-lived “high” for the user) whose sale or use is not banned by current legislation regarding the misuse of drugs, partly because the substances which makes up a Legal High are usually separately legally obtainable. I understand that technical breakthroughs now enable us to readily identify the composition. The legal status may change with new legislation soon to come in, and the sooner the better as far as I am concerned given the damage caused.
When I last wrote specifically on the subject, it was in the light of my experience as a manager of a night shelter and seeing the damage taking these substances causes guests and the knock on effects this has had on other people who have to deal with or affected by the consequences. I also wrote recently on the subject of addictions regarding the homeless and, while I think alcohol is still the main problem, recent evidence suggests Legal Highs, such as “Spice”, are a close second. Sadly, it no longer beggars belief that these substances are readily obtainable, and relatively inexpensive, including from at least two shops in my town centre.
Moreover, despite the damage Legal Highs causes to those taking these substances, they still persist in taking them, even despite warnings of the consequences, including being banned from night shelters, and bad experiences. Often, those who would not normally lie vehemently do so when confronted with their behavior. Again, this season I have come across several instances of people, some I know quite well, taking Legal Highs and this has ramifications as to how we deal with them when coming to our night shelters. Sadly, I have had to turn some away, for, even though I am aware of their vulnerability, I also have a duty of care to other guests and volunteers. Given those of us working in the field are new to this area, it is not always easy to be sure whether someone is taking a Legal High, mindful it affects people differently. The tell tale sign is people presenting themselves as “spaced out” and going from normal to “out of it” in a short time after taking a Legal High, which all too often happens, even under our very noses. Sometimes this has had huge consequences and people have become seriously unwell and in some instances have even been close to death.
I realize the popularity of Legal Highs goes far beyond those living rough on the streets. In one report, I heard how this affects some of the prison population, with all the bad side of human nature being seen as a result. One example was of a packet being thrown over the prison wall and being intercepted by prison officers. This resulted in a mini riot with prisoners wanting to recover the package in order to get their “fix”. We are talking about addiction, every bit as insidious and enticing as any other form. The reality is that those dependent on a Legal High will go to great lengths to get it. I suspect all this is but a tip of the iceberg, especially when I hear of violence, suicides, crime, assaults and threats, all of which has a marked effect on prison morale, and all to do with the trafficking in Legal Highs. I have no doubt many other areas are affected, including among the student population, and it is far more prevalent than most realise.
Legal Highs are another form of drug and should be regarded as such. Where it lies in the spectrum between mild and lethal, I cannot say, although I suspect there are big variations. How to deal with drug taking and dealing remains a controversial subject but one that needs to be persisted with given the damage it causes. I would resist allowing any form to go unchecked for the sake of wanting to be seen as liberal, and this applies in the case of Legal Highs where almost every experience I have encountered has had untoward consequences, something I have witnessed first hand among my homeless friends. Also, and not often realised, while some may well criticise the authorities of not dealing sympathetically with the homeless, given the amount of substance misuse, arguably self inflicted, that does go on, here is one reason why this happens, for if people are not prepared to engage (and how can they if taking substances) the tendency is to not help. It is a vicious circle, which those of us working at the coal face are regularly confronted with.
I am not unsympathetic to people feeling they need to respond to a craving brought on by addiction, for as anyone who has been addicted will tell you the draw to indulge is nigh irresistible, or trying to escape from the hopelessness of their situation, e.g. being out on the streets without much in the way of prospects of being suitably housed, in order to help nullify the pain. The tragedy from a homeless perspective is as long as people take Legal Highs (and the same goes with alcohol) they fail to face up to their situation and do not take the necessary steps needed to get to a better place. As for me, facing the challenge as no doubt I will when I next do a night shelter stint, I view the whole business with the detached realism needed in order to continue doing what I do, but also with compassion wanting to make a difference for those caught up.