Northern Ireland news

Academics warn of serious impact of 'legal highs'

A new law banned the sale of 'legal high' drugs three years ago
Seanín Graham

A TEN-year study into the use of 'legal high' drugs by young people in Belfast has found it severely impacted on their mental and physical health.

Researchers from Queen's University Belfast explored the alcohol and drugs habits of more than 2000 young adults - who were tracked from the age of 11 between 2000/01 and 2010/11 - and specifically examined the use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

NPS are cheaper, synthetic drugs that are also known as 'legal highs'.

Three years ago, a new law was introduced in the north to crack down on their sale - up until that point they had been sold over the counter in 'head shops', all of which have since closed.

Those who took part in the study reported serious side effects, including significant mental health problems as well as heart, liver, stomach and bladder issues.

Researchers also discovered that legal highs were always used with other drugs including cocaine and alcohol.

They warned that 10 per cent of users moved from synthetic cannabinoids to heroin and vice versa - a development they said had "not previously been reported".

Dr Kathryn Higgins, chief investigator of the study for Queen's said: "Our research explored in detail the varied motives, characteristics and lived experiences of young people using NPS, ranging from experimental users who liked the buzz or the fact that they were cheaper than other drugs to those who had become dependent and needed help from health and social care services.

"We discovered that there was a lack of knowledge about the negative impacts of taking these drugs due to them being new and constantly changing as well as being marketed at the time as 'legal highs. and perceived as 'safe'.”

The study made recommendations about how to "best respond" to NPS use, including:

- Use of peer educators in developing national drug education programmes

- Expansion of harm reduction techniques

- Research into the effectiveness of psychosocial and psychological interventions.

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