Your teenage daughter has just received an online invitation to a party, which is happening this weekend. You catch a glimpse of the invite on her laptop and notice that near the bottom of the page there are some links to a website selling legal highs.An online market in ‘legal highs’ (also termed novel psychoactive substances or research chemicals) has been taking advantage of new web technologies in the UK since 2003. Ecommerce websites distributing legal drugs began popping up at a time when people were still unsure about parting with their cash online. By 2007, for some individuals, buying drugs on the internet with their credit card had become second nature.
The internet is becoming a utility in the family home and more and more people are having access to this medium from multiple devices. As long as you have a connection, whether it is from your desktop computer, tablet or mobile phone, you are open to this modern drug market.
Some reports suggest that new, rediscovered or slightly altered chemical substances are entering the European club scene at a rate of one a week, so it can be difficult for parents and drug services to be able to respond quickly and appropriately. Add to this the long list of illegal substances such as ecstasy, mephedrone, cocaine, amphetamine, ketamine and cannabis and things can start becoming confusing.
‘The drug scene is moving really fast at the moment and some people don’t even know what they’re taking,” says Joanna Jones a Project Worker from the OASIS Partnership in High Wycombe. “Most of the calls we receive are from concerned parents who know something is wrong. Sometimes a few pills or a bag of powder is found in a pocket, maybe their child is taking risks or finding themselves in trouble with the criminal justice system.’
Nobody knows for certain the impact these ‘new’ drugs might be having on carers or family members. Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, an addiction psychiatrist from Club Drug Clinic in Chelsea and Westminster hospital said those who take club drugs tend to be younger, employed and sometimes affluent. They do not identify themselves as ‘addicts’ and are often in relationships.
Evidence is suggesting that problematic use is starting to come to light. Druglink Street Drug Trends 2012 identified a number of young peoples services in the UK seeing teenagers coming forward with behavioural problems associated with using the drug mephedrone. A particularly worrying aspect of the study was that compulsive injecting was happening with a cohort of users who had never previously injected drugs.
Parents and family agencies need to be aware of the myths that surround legal and illegal drugs. For example, ketamine is not a horse tranquiliser (it is an anaesthetic used on humans and small animals such as cats and dogs). Mephedrone is not bath salt or plant food (it will possibly damage the skin and kill your plants). Methoxetamine is not like mephedrone and is reported to have similar psychoactive effects to ketamine – hallucinations and a sense of leaving the body.
“The whole thing about NPS (novel psychoactive substances) is it’s so unknown,” says Nick Casey, Health Promotion Specialist, East Sussex Healthcare, NHS Trust “and even more unknown when used in conjunction with alcohol and other illegal substances. That’s why it’s important for families to get the right information on where to get help and advice.’
Nick goes on to explain, “When you search for a local drug service on FRANK’s website – this certainly goes for services in East Sussex – nearly all of the helping agencies don’t exist anymore or have been commissioned to another agency. Many websites use this information that FRANK gives out to put on there own web page, so somebody looking for local help goes round and round in circles.”
Parents and carers who come across unknown drugs or are concerned about their child using these drugs, can go online and see what services are available on their local Drug Action Team’s website. Before contacting a relevant agency it might be a good idea to prepare some questions beforehand. Calls can be made anonymously and you should feel safe to talk.
Drug resource websites such as Drugscope provide accurate information on a range of drugs that parents may find useful. Additionally, search for the name of new chemicals on Wikipedia and Youtube and crawl internet discussion forums on research chemicals. This will give some information on subjective experiences, possible side effects and any health or psychiatric problems faced by users.
The knowledge base among drug workers, GPs and other professionals on new drugs may vary across agencies but then not all agencies are witnessing the same growth in research chemicals. Norfolk, for example, has only seen an increase in nitrous oxide ‘laughing gas’. Ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis and amphetamine are still very prevalent in this area.
Many drug services throughout the UK have also been set up primarily to deal with more established drugs, such as heroin and it may be possible they are not attracting this client group or the problem just does not exist, it is difficult to tell without further research. Some agencies and charities are starting to see the use of research chemicals and are responding accordingly to support users and families.
“We aim to raise awareness of legal highs and other substances, through our parent and carers service, which will include treatment options and other support mechanisms that families may need.’ Says Colin McGregor-Paterson, Chief Executive Officer of the OASIS Partnership in Buckinghamshire. ‘Our website will direct people to other websites that have up-to-date information on these drugs. We will be setting up a legal high clinic one Saturday a month which will provide drop in opportunities for people wanting more information or to talk to a project worker about their loved ones use.”
Practitioners generally find when supporting families affected by drugs that the issues are often wider than the drugs themselves, with emotional and environmental factors at play. The needs are complex and there are often employment, housing and relationship issues. “The harms of NPS are multi-faceted and may be physical (intrinsic to the drug) or social in nature. Health services are starting to see problems caused by regular use of NPS affecting NPS users’ employment and education.” Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs ACMD 2008.
“We have a policy that actually is working,” claimed David Cameron, the prime minister. Last years British Crime Survey of England and Wales back up his statement. The use of conventional drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy does seem to be declining in Britain, particularly among the young. On the other hand, Tim Hollis, the drugs spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said the police were “flat-footed” trying to keep up with the pace of change.
It is difficult to predict how this issue will develop in the future or how government agencies will respond if the problematic use of NPS increases and more families become affected. It is therefore important that families are educated about new and traditional drugs with accurate information and adequate support is provided at a local level where needed.