Legal Highs

Angelus Foundation: ‘Keeping young people safe from the dangers of ‘legal highs’

The Christmas party season is suddenly upon us and the temptation to over indulge can be strong for all ages. Parents know it is probably too much to expect the younger generation to restrict their intake to mulled wine and mince pies. Sadly, there are now a multitude of substances which are available in some circles and the newest of those are legal highs.


You may have read something about these new legal substances and wondered, like young people do, if they can be that dangerous if they are legal. Well, we at Angelus hate to burden you with additional concerns as a parent, but the short answer is yes, these can be high risk substances. Parents need to learn about these legal highs and if possible have a conversation with their children about whether they have come across them at parties, clubs or festivals. 

Firstly, it is important to remember that most young people do not take drugs, legal or illegal. It is sometimes hard to believe that from media portrayals. Also the numbers who take illegal drugs have fallen considerably in recent years. For example, those who admit smoking cannabis at least once year have fallen from 28% in 1996 to about 13% today. But there has also been a discernible shift to legal substances, which mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. 

These legal highs are sold in brightly coloured packets and can be purchased from high street shops called headshops, online, through friends or dealers. How on earth are these drugs still legal, many ask? The reality is that the process for making a drug controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is lengthy and complex. The rate of new substances being produced in Chinese labs is simply far too high for the authorities to cope.

So what should parents do? It is easy to allow fear of this unknown threat to paralyse you into inaction. But the truth is that it is not hard to learn some of the basics about the subject to equip you with the knowledge to realise what you are up against. Our generation knows considerably more about drugs than our parents did but inevitably it still follows that young people now have superior knowledge to us. 

Angelus, as the lead charity raising awareness on the harms of legal highs, has recognised that parents need to be forearmed with knowledge. Last year, we got together with the organisations Adfam and the Club Drug Clinic and published ‘Talking to your children about...Legal highs and club drugs  - A parent's handbook.’ It is available as a free download from our website

The guide includes basic knowledge of the different kinds of substances, stimulants, hallucinogens and synthetic cannabis as well as practical steps on how to hold conversations with your children about them. Starting the conversation is the hard bit. The handbook will help you overcome the initial difficulty and then it becomes just another conversation you might have about staying safe, such as you would discuss alcohol

Surprising though it may seem, younger teenagers (11-15) often look to their parents as a source of information on all kinds of topics including drugs. Research indicates that two thirds of young people believe their parents to be a good source of information on drugs. 

It is unlikely, however successful you felt the conversation is, that you will be entirely reassured that your children have enough information themselves. Another practical step you can do is to point them in the direction of Angelus’s website for young people, , which includes a comprehensive range of information and films about the dangers of these substances. 

Both these sites contain objective and balanced information aimed at reducing the harms of legal highs. Scare tactics are usually counter-productive and threaten the credibility of other safety messages. Once young people understand what is in these legal highs, they tend to leave them alone. Angelus carries out school visits where we show films and survey young people’s views. It is gratifying that 96% of young people who view our film ‘Not what it says on the tin’ change their minds about legal highs. 

Parents should be aware that the main risk from legal highs is not so much addiction, although they can induce dependence if taken regularly but overdose, which is also called acute toxicity. The level of a safe dose is often hard to determine, as these are largely untested substances. Taking too much can cause physical collapse, which can lead to serious consequences. Generally speaking, young people should learn the important lesson of getting help immediately, if something goes wrong. A good friend calls the ambulance.

It is very easy for young people to think these legal highs are much weaker than their illegal equivalents. They are packaged in garish wrapping with names like Clockwork Orange, Pink Panther and Charley Sheen. They can certainly be as strong; varieties of synthetic cannabis are invariably much stronger. Higher strength does not mean they are more attractive to young people. No-one sees a few hours in A&E as a good end to the night. 

You should try and think of these substances as just another hazard facing young people and as a parent you will want to do everything you can to keep your children safe. But that does not mean they should not be allowed to have fun, so long as they have been made aware what the risks are.

If you want to learn more about legal highs, then you should consider joining Angelus’s Parents Community, which is to be launched in February. Any parent will be able to login to the site, watch short films and listen to experts talk about the issues. You will also have the opportunity to ask them questions. If you cannot engage with the live discussion you can view a recording of it at a more convenient time. Please email to ensure you are signed up.

Parents probably have a greater array of pressures these days than ever and risks sometimes seems to come from all angles but the principles of keeping our children safe is fairly constant. So we would encourage you to learn about these legal highs, you may surprise your children with your level of knowledge.

This blog was kindly written by the Angelus Foundation and they work to help society understand the dangers of ‘legal highs’, to reduce the harm they cause to young people and their families and to save lives.

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