Not Safe for Human Consumption. Please take note of the label

Posted by Kym Provan on

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I watched with horrified personal and professional interest Channel 4's "Legally High True Stories" - a documentary about Britain's growing market in legal drugs.

Government advisers on the programme quite rightly note that just because a "drug" (or more correctly called, chemical compound) has not yet been made illegal, it does not mean that it is harmless. Indeed, these "legal highs" are usually sold both on the internet, and perhaps more worryingly, in shops on high streets around the country, as either "plant food" (which is the purpose for which some of these original drugs were designed) or "not fit for human consumption". If a packet is sold and labelled as "not fit for human consumption", why would it be marketed as a "legal high" in the full knowledge of those selling and marketing it, that purchasers intend to consume the product?

The compounds have not been developed for medical reasons. However, the programme made clear that those who develop the seemingly never-ending differentiations of chemicals for financial gain do so with the knowledge that they will be sold with the intention of altering consumer's psychological state. Because they are not licensed drugs however, their effects have not been stringently tested in the way that licensed medications, or indeed illegal drugs, have been. The effect upon the human body is completely unknown, as is the dosage that can be taken without there being likely fatal consequences.

As matters currently stand, the governing and licensing bodies are in a difficult situation. No sooner have they managed to establish sufficient information on one compound to be able to make it illegal, than another, ever so slightly altered chemical compound, which does not fulfil the "illegal" criteria, is developed and marketed.

We are all far too familiar with stories in the press about young people who have taken "legal highs" and have sadly died as a consequence. Unfortunately though, these stories do not seem to be sufficient of a deterrent to others who choose to take these drugs, and it is possible that the apparent legality of those drugs is a factor.

As a mother of teenage children and a young adult, I am terrified that these products are so widely available and that if the people I care about so much were so inclined, I would be powerless to prevent them from purchasing the compounds, or the vendors from selling those products to them. I note that some websites do ask potential purchasers to confirm that they are over 18 years of age, despite the products not being intended for human consumption at all.

From a personal perspective, you may have noticed that this subject frustrates and upsets me to say the least. However, I have also come across the issue in a professional setting, which has done nothing to lessen these feelings.

As part of my job as a clinical negligence solicitor, I have previously been approached by bereaved parents, looking to find answers about their adult child's death. Often it transpires after toxicology results have been obtained, that "legal highs" have been ingested shortly before the individual's death. There are frequently other factors to consider, but given that there are no "safe" levels known for these compounds, often taken in combination with other compounds, and that "legal highs" have been identified in a number of sudden deaths in young people, it seems highly likely that they are at least a significant contributing factor.

"Legal highs" are not legal because they are approved or considered safe. They simply have never been considered as compounds which are intended for human consumption and therefore do not yet fall within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or subsequent statutory instruments. It is therefore, in my view, for those who choose to sell such products to the general public to demonstrate a greater level of accountability.

I thought that the Channel 4 programme was thought-provoking but upsetting. It highlights an issue that is unfortunately becoming ever more prevalent within society. As a professional looking to promote the safety of individuals and patients in particular, this is something I feel very strongly about.

I hope that the programme and recent accounts in the press will alert people to the gravity of the issue and the necessity for some more positive action being taken. 

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About the Author

Photograph of Kym Provan

Kym specialises in clinical negligence claims and heads our clinical negligence team in Southampton.

Kym Provan
Email Kym
023 8085 7317

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