Every secondary school in Lincoln — bar one — has reported incidents of pupils under the influence of drugs commonly known as ‘legal highs’.
County-wide, authorities have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people taken ill after using New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).
In a bid to tackle the use of NPSs, Lincolnshire Police, Trading Standards and Public Health are working together to educate parents and warn potential users of the dangers.
From Monday, November 25, Lincolnshire Police will be taking part in a national police week of action to highlight the dangers of NPSs, the effects of which have resulted in regular admittance to A&E departments and created dangerous side effects.
Recent reports in Lincoln include incidents of violence in connection with a product labelled Exodus Damnation and three people found unconscious in the street after taking a ‘legal high’ known as Sensate.
Currently, NPSs are widely available to purchase online and from ‘head shops’. There are two known head shops in Lincoln and two in the Boston area.
Lincoln teen user’s story
One 16-year-old from Lincoln told The Lincolnite how his use of legal highs affected his home and school life and left his brother with mental health difficulties. He is not named due to legal reasons.
The Lincoln teenager said: “I took Exodus Damnation among quite a few others. Most of the time the drugs made me heavy-eyed and heavy-headed. I did end up falling asleep in some quite bizarre places.
“My brother had a bad reaction one time. His eyes started rolling to the back of his head and his jaw locked up so that he couldn’t talk.
“My brother got into illegal drugs and I told him to move on to legal highs because I thought it would be better for him.
“I decided to stop when I thought about how it made my parents feel. When someone tells you not to do something you could just do it anyway. But things change when you look at it from someone else’s shoes who cares about you.
“While I was on legal highs I didn’t revise at all, I missed lessons and an exam. For English I did get a B in the end, but I was predicted an A*
“I am worried about my health. I used to be in a very good football team, we got to the finals in the national cup. Now I can run about 20 metres before I have to stop.
“My advice to people thinking about trying it would be to think about how you parents would feel. I am clean now and am looking forward to joining a new football team.”
Ahead of a police action week against legal highs, the young user made an appeal for people to consider their decisions: “You hear that ‘legal’ doesn’t mean safe but, to me, I never thought about it being unsafe,” he said.
Legal highs ‘danger to health’
Lincolnshire Police warned users of ‘legal highs’ that they are playing ‘Russian Roulette’ every time they consume an unregulated product, as local authorities predict it is only a matter of time before they see deaths due to NPSs.
Police say that one of the only forms of legislation that they can actively work with is a restriction on selling the drugs to under 18s, which they are pursuing actively.
Chief Inspector Pat Coates, the tactical lead for the west side of the county in relation to legal highs, said: “One of the issues with the shops that sell them and distribution via the internet is that if they don’t sell anything illegal then our powers are very limited. We do keep close contact with local head shop owners so that we are aware of what is being sold.
“Where the chemicals used are concerned, as soon as one product is banned, another is put in that same packet. The trouble is trying to keep up with the evolving chemical makeup.
“However, a lot of the products that we take away for testing do contain illegal substances.
“They try to mimic the effect of the normal controlled drug such as cocaine, and get round the legislation by stating that it’s not suitable for human consumption.
“We know of many instances where the selling of legal highs is linked to other forms of criminal activity.
“My advice would be that these legal highs are perhaps even more dangerous than controlled substances. Just because they are legal does not make them safe.”
The proactive police action, part of Operation Burdock, will focus on people across Lincolnshire who have purchased large amounts of NPSs.
Spot the signs of ‘legal highs’ use
Working alongside police, Lincolnshire Trading Standards say the key first approach is making sure that friends, parents and teachers know how to spot the signs of NPS use and the risks and passing that information on.
Sara Barry, Head of Safer Communications and Trading Standards said: “We are trying to use the full tool kit of legislation that we have to hand to look into the issues surrounding NPSs.
“It’s not perfect legislation and it is developing. We are trying to make shop owners aware of the legislation that they could be breaching.
“The issue with these products is there are just no controls on them. People think they are buying one thing one week, but the packet contains a completely different substance and concentration the week after, this could also mean lethal doses.
“Business owners are taking a big risk. Because there is a new drug out every week, they are also known to be promoting buy one get one free offers to push the older stock. Trying to tackle the traders had been quite difficult.”
‘Head shop’ views
The Lincolnite spoke with shop assistant Karen from Head Candy, in Lincoln, who gave her views on legal highs.
In the past the ‘head shop’ has seen a number of raids after concerns were raised by members of the public and local schools.
“Personally I’ve not had to worry about police,” said Karen “We did have a problem with underage sales but since I took over, I ID anyone who looks under 21.
“We have had a couple of raids but they have all come back clean. There are some products that I don’t agree with and don’t sell. I opened one packet and didn’t agree with the smell. I don’t take drugs, legal or illegal, and to me it didn’t smell right.
“I have taken Sensate off the shelves because of the publicity, and also because customers have reported it reacting one way one minute and another way the next.
“I do sell Exodus Damnation, but none of my customers have ever had a problem because they are a lot older and a lot more responsible.
“I don’t agree with kids getting hold of it. I have four myself and if I heard they were coming into a shop like this at 15 I would have gone off my head.
“People say ‘if there is a risk why sell it?’, but there is a risk with alcohol, with smoking. At the end of the day it’s down to the user. The older the user, the more responsible they are and if they are on the streets, it’s a form of escape.”
The chemistry of legal highs
Robert Forrest is the Senior Coroner for South Lincolnshire and honorary Professor of Forensic Chemistry at the University of Sheffield.
“The actual science behind ‘legal highs’ is very fascinating,” said Professor Forrest. “A lot of these drugs and compounds were developed as tools for neurochemistry and to investigate how the brain works.
“They have created some very valuable insights into how the mechanisms that underlie schizophrenia and depression work.
“The smoking mixtures will not only produce, for example, cannabis-like effects, but they will also produce a lot of the side effects, like paranoia and depression, very easily because they are so potent.
“There is another group that produces LSD-like hallucinations. The trouble is you have no idea what you are buying when something is labelled ‘Brand X’.
“We know that these legal drugs mimic the effects of controlled substances and evoke the same side effects. The problem is that we can’t map the extent of the long-term dangers. The truth is, in choosing a ‘legal high’ you are choosing to put you life in your hands.”
Director of Public Health for Lincolnshire County Council, Tony McGinty, has led responsibility for Drug and Alcohol public services and prevention in the county.
Tony McGinty said: “It’s very clear that the level of effect that this is having on Lincoln people is getting higher. It’s in the last month or so that I have seen a significant step up in the level of difficulty that people are getting into.
“People are being lulled into a false sense of security by the label ‘legal’. People assume that shops shouldn’t be able to sell you things that have not been tested as fit for human consumption.”