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Legal highs

Legal highs are largely substances which imitate the effects of illegal drugs when consumed, but are not actually illegal themselves. As with illegal drugs, they can have a range of effects on users and employers should consider their impact on their employees and workplaces.

Key points

  • Many so called "legal highs" are already illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act but new substances - yet to be controlled - continue to emerge on the market.
  • The drugs imitate the effects on users of more traditional illegal substances.
  • During 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated.
  • There is currently legislation going through Parliament to ban the supply of these drugs based on their psychoactive effects.
  • Employers should consider legal highs when writing their drug and alcohol policies.

Legal highs

There has been an increase during recent years in the sale and use of so called "legal highs". Legal highs, or psychoactive drugs or New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, generally cannot be sold for human consumption and so are often marketed as bath salts, incense or plant food. They mostly contain synthetic, chemical compounds which imitate the effects of more traditional, illegal drugs such as speed and cannabis.

Often they contain ingredients which haven't been tested on humans and so the effects of human consumption are hard to predict. These drugs can have a range of effects on users and are generally used as stimulants, "downers" or hallucinogens.

As they are marketed as legal and sold openly in shops or online, many users may not fully realise the effects they might have. Many users are also unaware that, despite being legal, their use is probably banned in most workplaces under the organisation's drugs policy.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill

In an attempt to control the use of psychoactive substances the Government announced new legislation in May 2015.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill will prohibit and disrupt the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the UK. The Bill is currently progressing through Parliament.

The new legislation places a blanket ban on all psychoactive (or mind altering) substances, and introduces a list of exemptions for those in everyday use, such as alcohol, coffee and medicines which are regulated elsewhere, as well as drugs already banned under Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

More information on the Bill can be found from UK Parliament - Psychoactive Substances Bill [HL] 2015-16.

Managing the use of drugs in the workplace

Alcohol and drugs policies don't have to be limited to what is and isn't allowed in the law. The use of alcohol is not illegal, yet most companies will have a ban or limit on alcohol consumption during working hours. Legal highs should be treated in the same way and built into Alcohol and drugs policies.

If an organisation's policy includes drug testing this may be more challenging when trying to identify legal highs as the compounds they contain change regularly. It may be easier for the policy to focus on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the drugs themselves.

Policies should encourage users to seek help for their problems and educate staff and line managers on the signs of drug use and what to be aware of.

Dealing with someone who has a problem with using legal highs should be approached in the same way as any other workplace drug or alcohol misuse. Acas has produced advice on Dealing with someone who has a drug or alcohol problem.

Acas training and other ways that Acas can help

Developing Alcohol and Drugs Policies - Acas business solutions

Acas offers a range of advice and support for businesses and individuals dealing with alcohol and drug issues in the workplace.

We can work with your organisation to help you develop, implement and communicate effective drugs policies. Acas has extensive experience in this area and we can provide cost effective solutions to your needs. Acas is often also called in to help organisations improve their managers' skills in handling difficult conversations in the workplace.

Find out more from our Health, wellbeing and managing attendance page.

Acas also run practical Training and Business Solutions to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplace environments.

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