Bristol is famous for its underground scene; often mistaken to be composed solely of “Drum and Bass” and drugs. Illegal ones more often than not. A growing phenomenon has nonetheless made its way to the surface and the media now also pays attention to legal drugs, or “legal highs.” The government de ned them as “substances that are taken to achieve an altered state of mind, that are not currently controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.” They are therefore legal to purchase and to possess. Three of them, GBL, BZP and Spice, were banned in December 2009, although dozens are still sold in “head shops” or on the Internet.

These substances are made of chemicals that mimic the properties of illegal drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, producing a sense of euphoria and increased energy. The main downside is that little research has been done into them, and there is no scientific proof that these chemical combinations are safe. Frank, the government’s drugs awareness agency, states “some people have experienced negative side-effects like fast heart beat, paranoia, panic attacks, fits and as they are relatively new the long term risks are unknown. It is important to remember that just because these substances are legal does not mean they are safe.”

The grey area that surrounds these legal drugs is incredibly wide. Even after a lot of research, it is difficult to fully comprehend the extent of their harmfulness. Legal highs are available on the Internet, where they are branded as “not for human consumption” or plant food because of their effects on the body. However, these effects have not been proven, which means no one can openly advise you on dosage or precautions to take, yet they are often bought for consumption and with the intention of getting high. For many legal highs users who share their experiences on Internet forums, the consequence of this labelling process is the assumption that legal means safe. Like any other drugs, they say, taking too much or mixing them with other substances like alcohol can cause problems and should be avoided. Sellers have found a loophole in the system and know that as long as they label their substances as plant food, they cannot be held responsible for side effects that may come with absorption.

Websites are usually disguised as plant fertilizers sites or bath salts shops, and make their positions official in disclaimers. These drugs are too dangerous to be advertised honestly, so how legal are they really? And why are people taking them?

Online forums seem to be the place to talk openly about legal highs, as head shop keepers remain silent on the quality and the properties of their substances. Typically, visitors are told to use the Internet to research the pills if they don’t know anything about them.

Indeed, people talk freely on the Internet, and their main pro legal highs argument is they have not proven to be dangerous or deadly. They compare them to alcohol which regularly causes health damages and violence, and which is still legal.

John, who writes on a forum about legal highs, says access to them is easier. “I turned to legal highs because I couldn’t get weed on the street,” he says. Availability was his concern and websites made it possible for him to buy a substance that gets him high.

Holly bought mephedrone on the Internet for similar reasons. “It is quick and easy access, if you can’t get illegal drugs.” She also says it’s much cheaper.

Another contributor who wishes to remain anonymous explains legal highs allow people to enjoy themselves without drinking large amounts of alcohol, purchased at ridiculous prices. It is also a way to avoid the criminal underworld of illegal drugs which is unregulated and dangerous. “People do it in full knowledge that, as with any other drug, including prescribed medications, there can be side-effects,” he says The Scottish government recently proposed a change in drugs law that would criminalize the act of selling or manufacturing recreational drugs, rather than outlawing the substance itself as is the case with the current legislation.

This follows incidents that have occurred over the past year involving legal highs, although it is never clear what quantities were absorbed, and whether they were mixed with anything else.

A contributor on a forum states we should be more educated about drugs and the real danger they cause. The Office of National Statistics has estimated paracetamol is linked to roughly 1,000 deaths a year, and this is a substance most of us take on a regular basis.

If someone chooses to take more than advised on the box and dies, it is their problem and their responsibility, and paracetamol will still be legal. Why couldn’t it be the same for other drugs?

The government’s approach is to tell people that drugs are bad. Users of legal highs think there are better ways of doing things. One commenter wrote: “[They should] teach people how to be safe on drugs, teach them to understand warning signs and how to handle things when something goes bad.” People should know why mixing drugs is dangerous, and fully understand what risk they are taking so they can make an informed decision before taking drugs.

We are constantly surrounded by campaigns and messages warning us about the dangers of every substance we may absorb, from alcohol to fruits and vegetables. In this sea of warnings, it can be difficult to know what we truly risk and to understand why. The safety of some products is taken for granted because they are legal, and often we forget abusing them can be dangerous.

The lack of official information on legal drugs pushes people to share the little they know on the Internet. The Frank campaign and many forum contributors seem to agree on one point; legal does not mean safe. At the end of the day, no one else can decide what is best for you.