The word on the street is that there are legal highs to be found. Referred to as “social tonics” or “herbal highs” that are sold in brightly colored packaging. These recreational substances are marketed as legal options to illegal drugs. For clarity, governments and relevant agencies adapt the terminology of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and refer to these substances as New Psychoactive Substances or NPS.
New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)
Under the UNODC definition, new psychoactive substances or NPS are substances abused in their pure form or as a preparation that are covered by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances or the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs but whose effects present a threat to public health.
These substances are not necessarily newly invented since some of these have been synthesized decades ago. The term “new” rather refers to the fact that these have become available to the public as recreational drugs and are marketed to have the same effects as established illegal substances such as ecstasy, cannabis, LSD, and cocaine.
Types and usage of NPS
While these synthetic drugs have numerous street names – legal highs, party pills, herbal ecstasy, bath salts – they can be categorized under four main types:
- Synthetic cannabis – Synthetic cannabis refers to man-made chemicals that were designed to produce the same effect on the brain as cannabis’ active ingredient delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These synthetic chemicals come in powdered form and are mixed with solvents, which are then added to dried herbs. Synthetic cannabis is smoked or drunk as tea.
- Downers – These are tranquilizer-type drugs that mimic the effects of anti-anxiety drugs particularly from the Benzodiazepine class and include Etizolam, Flubromazepam, and Pyrazolam
- Stimulant-type drugs – These are drugs designed to have the same energy and mood-lifting effects as amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy. Initially, these were produced with man-made chemicals such as benzylpiperazine (BZP) and trifluoro-methyl-phenylpiperazine (TFMPP) as their base. Often referred to as party pills, their ingredients can also include phenylalanine, piper nigrum, tyrosine, and tryptophan. Those that are marketed as natural supplements or “herbal highs” may be advertised as containing only natural ingredients such as caffeine, citrus extract, and geranium extract. However, analysis on these drugs often reveals that they are in fact made from cheaper synthetic chemicals.
- Hallucinogenic drugs – These are drugs that were made to mimic LSD and similar substances. Examples of these are Bromo-Dragonfly, the ketamine-like methoxetamine, and 25i-NBOMe. Hallucinogenic NPS come in powder, crystal, or capsule form, and are smoked, injected, swallowed, shelved (taken anally), or injected.
Safety comparison on NPS versus illegal drugs
The biggest misconception about NPS is that since they are legal or contain legal ingredients they should be safe. NPS are not regulated and tested. The packaging doesn’t usually indicate a recommended dosage or a list of the ingredients and their amounts, making it easy for people to overdose. Even if the packaging does state this information, it is very possible to have a different product inside even if the name and packaging is the same. Lastly, NPS often contain cutting agents or fillers that can cause health problems.
Effects and risks from taking NPS
While NPS effects can vary, growing evidence indicates that these drugs have short and long-term negative health effects.
Short term effects include users experiencing temporary psychotic episodes, exhibiting unpredictable and aggressive behavior, increase in body temperature and heart rate, hallucinations, vomiting, getting into a coma, and suicidal feelings brought by intense comedowns from the drugs.
Increase in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, as well as developing physical and psychological dependency are just a number of the long-term effects.