A legal substance does not equal a safe substance

Monday, 17 November 2014 - 4:33pm

As we launch our new Legal Highs Awareness training course, Carole Fox of Sifa Fireside looks at this issue which is having an increasing impact on homelessness services and the people they support. As a sector, what can we do to address it?

Photograph: www.epsos.de

As an agency experienced in supporting people with complex needs as a result of alcohol, substance misuse and mental health issues, our team have the skills to address certain types of behaviour. However, around two years ago we began to notice a distinct change in the behaviour of the people accessing our service.

From chatting with clients it started to emerge that this pronounced change was down to the use of ‘legal highs’. This became even more of an issue when those who had traditionally used Class A substances and/or alcohol began to combine legal and illegal substances.

What are ‘legal highs’?

These substances combine a range of chemicals that produce effects similar to illegal drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana. They are often marketed as plant food or bath salts, and the wide range of ingredients used means it is almost impossible for users to know exactly what they are taking and the damage it may cause.

How are you addressing legal highs?

In partnership with Sifa Fireside, we are running four Legal Highs Awareness sessions across the regions. Improve your understanding of the substances, impact and therapeutically informed interventions that could improve the support you provide. BOOK YOUR PLACE NOW

What are the effects?

The physical reaction to these substances is often dramatic. When a client has used legal highs there is a possibility that they will ‘drop like a stone’ to the floor and their complexion will take on a green and yellowish tone. On occasion they have also appeared extremely psychotic, and we’ve even had one incident in which a client stopped breathing and staff had to administer first aid to resuscitate him whilst waiting for the ambulance.

Why so popular?

The current appeal of legal highs is primarily based on cost, ease of accessibility and, perhaps most importantly, legality. These products are extremely cheap and can be bought over the counter on the high street from ‘head shops’, no questions asked.

They are often cut with chemicals ... used for other purposes, like industrial cleaning.

This means that users don’t have to rely on dealers and the risks that go along with this, and there is nothing the police can do if they are found to have a legal high substance on them. 

One of the biggest dangers is in users interpreting a ‘legal’ substance as being a ‘safe’ substance, which we know is far from the truth. There is also often a misconception that these products are not very strong, so users consume large amounts to achieve the desired effect. They are often cut with chemicals that are not safe for human consumption and, worryingly, are more likely to be used for other purposes, like industrial cleaning.

What can homelessness agencies do?

Our drop-In service was becoming increasingly difficult to manage as a result, so I decided that I needed to know more and attended a training course to gain better insight and awareness of the issue. Following this, our alcohol recovery worker and training manager devised a briefing that could be rolled out to staff, clients and volunteers.

We now offer a specialist training session which gives an overview of the legal highs market, the potential effect on users and practical advice on working with these clients.

What should be done to tackle this issue?

I believe much more awareness and information of the effects and impact of legal highs is needed. I would like to see more done to outlaw these substances, but until then we need greater education and specialist advice. 

Despite how it is often perceived, this is not simply a ‘night clubbing’ issue. In many cases, the ease of access to legal highs is legitimising the destructive behaviours and patterns of abuse that have led people into homelessness, and blocking their journey to recovery.

For example, one client advised me that he is on licence and whilst he would be in serious trouble of going back to prison if he was in possession of illegal substances, there is nothing the police can do about him consuming legal highs. This client has been hospitalised twice in the last 6 weeks.

As a support agency we have delivered awareness sessions for clients and advised them clearly that legal highs cannot be consumed on our premises. We have also warned clients about sharing cigarettes as there have been several incidences of people unwittingly smoking a legal high.

We have had to deal with people collapsing, call an ambulance for a client who became psychotic and perform CPR on another who collapsed in the drop-in and stopped breathing. These individuals were the lucky ones, because we were able to help. But if the use of legal highs continues to grow in popularity, deaths as a result of their use may become increasingly common.

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Carole Fox

Operations Manager, SIFA Fireside

Carole has worked in homeless services in various roles with vulnerable people since 1993.