NPS (formerly known as legal highs) - what are they?

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) are not currently controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 but these substances are ILLEGAL to sell, supply, or advertise for human consumption.

Watch the video for a reason not to give them a go

Harley my story - legal highs

Harley’ story is a poignant, true account of a 15-year old boy who took illegal drugs and experienced devastating consequences.

He talks candidly about his struggles to get his life back to some sort of normality after suffering a near fatal stroke.

Under the Medicines Act these substances are ILLEGAL...

Because NPSs are not currently controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 they are therefore legal to possess. However under the Medicines Act most of these substances are ILLEGAL to sell, supply, or advertise for human consumption, as they have usually not undergone any testing to understand the specific risks to the human body and mind. To get around this products are often marked as ‘research chemical’, ‘plant food’ and ‘not for human consumption’.

Manufacturers are often able to develop new drugs very quickly following one being made illegal. This means it is likely that new substances will continue to be on the market and new risk will be identified as people take them for the first time. NPSs are available on the internet and from head shops, but predominantly through friendship groups.

What are the Government doing about NPS?

The Psychoactive Substances Act came into force on 26 May 2016.

A blanket ban on so-called ‘legal highs’ and tough new enforcement powers came into effect on 26 May 2016.

The Psychoactive Substances Act  protects young people by banning any production, supply and importation or exportation for human consumption of these potentially dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs.

The act provides a range of criminal and civil sanctions including new powers for police and tough sentences of up to 7 years for offenders.

The UK is the first country in the world to put in place a rigorous system of testing to demonstrate that a substance is capable of having a psychoactive effect, providing evidence to support civil action and prosecutions.

Sanctions under the act include:

  • up to 7 years in prison for the supply, production, possession with intent to supply, importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance for human consumption
  • up to 2 years in prison for possessing a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution
  • prohibition and premises orders, which will allow police to shut down head shops and online dealers in the UK, with up to 2 years in prison for those who fail to comply
  • police powers to seize and destroy psychoactive substances, search people, premises and vehicles, and to search premises by warrant if necessary

The government has already taken action against so-called ‘legal highs’, having banned more than 500 potentially dangerous drugs since 2010 under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.


The Government introduced a temporary banning system which enables the government to try and alleviate problems created by NPS. Temporarily banning a substance allows the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to fully research the substance to give the government full advice.

Substances that have been subject to a temporary ban and have then been added to the Misuse of Drug Act 1971 are:

  • NBOMe Compounds are now a Class A drug under the 1971 Act which came into force at 00:01 on 10th June 2014.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: various synthetic cannabinoids have now become Class B drugs (such as Spice 23 Dec 2009)
  • Benzofuran Compounds are now a Class B drug under the 1971 Act which came into force at 00:01 on 10th June 2014.
  • Mephedrone (also known as meow, meow, meth, MCAT, and bubbles) is now a Class B drug which came into force at 00:01 on 16th April 2010.
  • Naphyrone (also known as NRG-1, NRG1, Energy-1, Energy1 and Rave) is now a Class B drug which came into force at 00:01 on 23th July 2010.

What you need to know

We have more factual evidence on illegal drugs than NPS. This means that some of the effects and risks of NPS are not known, can be very severe and unpredictable. These products can also vary greatly between batches on purity and content. Just because the packaging remains the same does not mean the substance inside is the same. Always ‘test dose’ a small amount first.

NPS have not been scientifically tested, so are tested on you. They come with little or no research into their effects and there are often specific effects that may lead to increased risk to users – we only really understand these risks through science and research.

Police will treat unknown powders and pills as illegal, you could be arrested and there can be a record of this kept even if the test comes back that the drug is legal. Each case is different and the circumstances and what is said in interview have a bearing on what offence is committed, not just the fact that it is not a controlled drug.

To protect the health of individuals within the community, if you are found in possession of an NPS deemed by the police to be a health risk, you will be asked to sign and disclaim the substance, which will then be sent for destruction. This also links to a new power to seize, detain and destroy any suspected temporary class drugs orders substances which enables police to take appropriate action to prevent possible harm to the individual.

How to stay safe

Taking NPS drugs if you suffer from any mental health issue, including depression and anxiety can be damaging. Some drugs can start an episode of poor mental health or make any mental health problems worse. Although many products available in Head Shops are advertised as “natural” or “herbal” highs, a large number are not purely herbal and contain other elements that are sometimes illegal and can be damaging to human health.

Do NOT mix any NPS drug with alcohol or any other substance. Mixing increases risk and the potential for problems. For example, mixing one drug with alcohol, users sometimes drink more than planned and may also repeat use of a drug as decision making gets effected. This can lead to problem behaviours, aggression, vulnerability, unplanned and regretted sex, significant intoxication leading to collapse and in some cases death.

The time it takes for a drug to take effect can vary. Taking another dose because you think the drug is not working can be dangerous and result in overdose or can trigger mental health problems.

Smoking blends that are designed to mimic the effects of Cannabis are plant matter sprayed with chemicals. This means the chemicals once the substance is packaged fall off the product, so if the bag is not shaken before use the first experience is very different to the last. This increases the risk of harm and in some cases psychosis.

Do not use alone, plan your use and make sure you are not isolated. Be aware that once you start a “trip” you cannot stop it. The immediate effects of some drugs can last for 8-10 hours. Longer term effects such as anxiety and paranoia can last for weeks. Be aware that taking some drugs may result in flashbacks weeks after taking them.

Dehydration can result from taking some drugs. Users should rehydrate by slowly sipping water. Over rehydration can result in water intoxication.

Avoid these drugs completely if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Some are likely to be toxic to the developing foetus and could therefore cause birth defects or result in brain damage to the baby.

There is no quality control, nor has there been any controlled testing, on these substances. All drugs, even those prescribed by doctors, have side effects, some of which are fatal for some individuals. It is inevitable that some of these substances will have occasional fatal side effects, causing death by acute heart or respiratory failure or acute liver failure.

If you feel unwell from the use of NPS, consult your doctor or a health professional quickly and make sure you tell them about your use of a substance.

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