Legal Highs hit the headlines, prompting health concerns, and subsequent policy responses when ‘Spice’, a potent cannabis substitute and mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant, grew in popularity across Europe in 2009. Recent years have seen increasingly rapid changes in New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) production, supply, and consumption. The number of different NPS to appear since these substances were made illegal suggests that NPS use is embedded in the European drug scene.

The MCSLH has several objectives:

  • To estimate the prevalence of legal highs in different Night Time Economies across Europe, but particularly in Manchester.
  • To determine the types of legal highs consumed, their chemical composition and the extent to which users understand their composition.
  • To ascertain the ways in which legal highs are used in poly drug repertoires.
  • To identify the impact of legal highs on individuals who take them including impacts on their health, their lifestyle and education, training and employment.
  • To better understand the market for legal highs, in particular: the purchasing decisions of those who buy legal highs (including price sensitivity); whether Legal Highs are a substitute for illegal drugs or, conversely are a ‘gateway’ drug; how users of Legal Highs respond to the marketing of Legal Highs; and the impact of Legal Highs on local and mid-level drug markets.
  • To develop policy and practice guidance covering areas such as public health guidance, access to treatment services and regulation/enforcement.

What are Legal Highs?

Although not new, the issue of New Psychoactive Substances (hereafter NPS) has gained recent prominence due to a range of complex factors, including: chemical technologies, market availability, internet supply, trends in substance misuse and price. Generally legally available, they fit broadly into four categories:

Products with names which give no indication of what they contain;

  • Named and specific substances which are designed to be similar chemically and/or pharmacologically to known specific controlled drugs;
  • Substances related to medicines; and,
  • Herbal and fungal materials or their extracts.

About us

We are a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists, chemists and economists with an interest in better understanding the rapid growth in the number of legal highs and new trends in their use.

Key staff

Dr Rob Ralphs is Co-Director of MCSLH

Dr Oliver Sutcliffe is Co-Director of MCSLH

Professor Chris Fox

Professor Gary Pollock

Rapid growth in Legal Highs

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) have documented a year on year increase in the reporting of new substances – 24 in 2009, 41 in 2010 and almost one new substance per week (49) in 2011. In 2012, 73 new substances were officially notified for the first time in the EU and the EMCDDA and Europol now monitors over 250 new psychoactive substances. It is highly likely that Legal Highs with similar levels of popularity to mephedrone will appear in the future (ACMD 2011: 21-22).

Legal Highs are primarily sold over the Internet and in ‘head’ shops as ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ or ‘plant food’. Though there are a small number of previously unseen chemical substances emerging on the market, many of these products (or their ingredients) are constantly being tweaked and “rebranded” by manufacturers – which complicates efforts to identify what chemicals are in a particular product and decide if it should be controlled. Some ‘legal’ highs have actually been found to contain some ingredients (for example: mephedrone, 4’-methyl-N-ethylcathinone and MDPV) that are illegal to possess.

In 2012, the EMCDDA identified 693 Internet shops selling ‘legal highs’ to consumers in the EU. This compares to 314 shops identified in January 2011 and 170 in January 2010 (EMCDDA 2013). Britain has become the online "designer drugs" capital of Europe with more than a third of all internet retailers that sell "legal highs" based in the UK (EMCDDA 2009).

Key Publications

EY Santali, A-K Cadogan, N Nic Daeid, KA Savage and OB Sutcliffe (2011) "Synthesis and full chemical characterisation of (±)-4'-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone): A new "legal high"", Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, 56 (2), 246-255. Link

N Nic Daeid, W Meier-Augenstein, HF Kemp and OB Sutcliffe (2012) “Using Isotopic Fractionation to Link Precursor to Product in the Synthesis of (±)-Mephedrone: A New Tool for Combating "Legal High" Drugs”, Analytical Chemistry, 84(20), 8691-8696. Link

OIG Khreit, C Irving, E Schmidt, JA Parkinson, N Nic Daeid and OB Sutcliffe (2012) "Synthesis, full chemical characterisation and development of validated methods for the quantification of the components found in the evolved "legal high" NRG-2", Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, 61, 122-135.