LEGAL HIGHS: The true cost to Lancashire

Sarah Hardy, trading standards officer in Lancashire, with a haul of legal highs seized from shops in Preston and Chorley.
Sarah Hardy, trading standards officer in Lancashire, with a haul of legal highs seized from shops in Preston and Chorley.
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Legal highs, chemicals that mimic the effects of street drugs, are presenting a massive challenge to authorities, sold both on the street, online - and finding their way into the hand of audiences young and old. STEF HALL looks at the true cost to the county.

“I believe we are only scratching the surface of a serious public health challenge.”

Those were the words of Lancashire County Council’s Director of Public Health Dr Sakthi Karunanithi as an alarming survey, released exclusively to the Evening Post as part of its ‘Dying to get high’ series, showed one in 10 young people in Lancashire admit trying or using legal highs.

The psychoactive drugs, costing as little as £6 online, contain various chemical ingredients that produce similar effects to illegal drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy, and are considered just as dangerous, despite being legal.

A group made up of different organisations has been set up to tackle the issue across the county as increasing evidence of young people’s habits are brought to light.

A few weeks ago, the LEP revealed a laughing gas craze could be taking a grip on young people in Lancashire, after parents found more than 100 used nitrous oxide canisters dumped yards from a school in Bamber Bridge.

More than 150 youngsters aged 14 to 17 who responded admitted trying or using legal highs, with 17-year-olds the most likely to have tried them.

The survey of 1,000 children suggests Preston is the third most prevalent place in Lancashire for youngsters to try or use legal highs, beaten by Fylde and Burnley.

Youngsters who are heavier drinkers were more likely to have tried or used legal highs.

Almost a third bought them from a street supplier, and a similar amount said they got them from “a friend”.

A quarter bought them from a local shop. A third of the children said they knew other young people who took legal highs.

Today, Dr Karunanithi said: “In recent years, there has been an unprecedented surge in the availability of new psychoactive substances.

“Clear action must be taken to deal with the misuse of these substances which are a clear threat to public health. What’s so worrying is how little is known about these substances, yet it appears they are quickly becoming a significant drug of choice for many young people.

“We are clear that these products, which fall into the same categories as classified drugs like synthetic cannabinoids, stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens, are being sold by irresponsible businesses in Lancashire to be smoked, snorted, swallowed or injected.

“They are misleadingly marketed as ‘research chemicals’ and labelled as ‘not for human consumption, we are unsure of their true content and people using them have no idea of correct dosages. I believe these new psychoactive substances are dangerous and present a significant risk to people that use them.”

The Government is hoping to tackle the issue with the Psychoactive Substances Bill introduced in the House of Lords on May 28, which will eventually make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances capable of producing a psychoactive effect. But critics believe it will be difficult to enforce.

As the trend continues to takes a grip in Lancashire, the effects are being seen in police calls.

Legal highs were linked to 159 police incidents in Lancashire in just 12 months - figures obtained by the Evening Post under the Freedom of Information Act show.

It highlights a staggering 10-fold increase over only three years in calls linked to the substances.

The police figures include 29 calls about people collapsing, while 18 others related to anti social behaviour.

The drugs, also known as novel psychoactive substances or NPS, were linked to NINE missing people reports.

Clive Grunshaw, Police and Crime Commissioner for Lancashire, said: “So-called legal highs are just like illegal drugs and can cause particular problems for police and local areas, so clearly there is a concern.

“Statistics show that there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of incidents reported to the police involving legal highs and young people have told me that they are concerned about these substances and the effects they can have on those who take them.

“These substances can be very dangerous and can also cause a particular problem, both in terms of ensuring residents feel safe in their local areas and due to the demand they place on police officers having to respond to issues of anti-social behaviour.”

Lancashire Police’s Scientific Support Unit Drugs Laboratory based in Hutton, carries out analysis and related examinations to provide forensic drugs evidence to the courts in cases of possession, supply and production of illegal drugs.

It carries out comparison work involving legal highs that have been made illegal under temporary control orders, and associated packaging, in order to link items seized from different locations or individuals.

The fallout caused by the substances are the county’s hospitals, who have seen a growing trend in admissions related to legal highs.

Though there aren’t actual figures to support this, consultant Michael Stewart, who has worked in the Royal Preston Hospital’s accident and emergency department for even years, says he has seen life threatening situations.

The medics deal with between one and two critically ill people a month, and up to eight a month with milder reactions.

He said: “We started noticing them becoming an issue for us around three years ago. The youngest I remember seeing was 17, but the oldest was in his late 40s. They can be life threatening. I’ve treated irregular heartbeats, difficulty breathing, and seen intensive care at the severe end.

“People are extremely ill with it. The concern is calling them legal - there’s a big difference between being legal and being safe.

“We have not seen a massive epidemic in local hospitals, but the people we do see are very seriously unwell. For something that hardy existed a few years ago, we have seen an increase.

“Most are treated after taking Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, but we also treated people for the amphetamine like effects of other stimulants, including seizures. “Further down the line people are having quite significant metal health concerns.

“In one case a patient in their 30s was fitting, could not stop fitting and had to be treated with local anaesthetic drugs and ended up in intensive care .

“Although the numbers don’t appear big there were 60 deaths in the UK last year and most people had not had heath problems before that. That’s 60 lives that have just disappeared.

“Our concern is if this trend continues we will see a local death.”

Earlier this month the North West Ambulance Service highlighted an increase in 999 calls as a result of patients consuming so-called “legal highs.”

The service has also noticed patients becoming violent and aggressive after taking these substances, posing a threat to ambulance staff who often bear the brunt of uncontrollable behaviour.

If you are affected by this story you can seek advice from:

Discover - Adult Drug & Alcohol Services on 01772 366 123

Young Addaction - Young People’s Substance Misuse Service on 01772 255 307