The growing market for so-called ‘legal highs’ is leaving ambulance staff across the UK struggling to cope with the fallout.
Legal highs, officially classed as ‘new psychoactive substances’ or NPSs, are developed to mimic class A drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy. However, owing to their chemical structure they cannot be classified as illegal, so it is legal to possess and use them.
But the consequences of taking an NPS can include hallucinations, paranoia, agitation, arrhythmia and breathing problems. They can lead to kidney failure, strokes and comas and the effects can be fatal.
Figures show that the number of deaths from legal highs in the UK rose from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012. Last year in Scotland alone, 114 deaths were recorded while on average ambulances were called out six times a day for cases involving legal highs. Police incidents have more than doubled in the last two years and the impact on ambulance services is comparable.
Sarah Harrison, an advanced paramedic for the NWAS said: “We have no drugs that counteract the effects of the substances that people are taking, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the problems.”
The sheer variety of drugs on the market and the continuous changing of their chemical composition is leaving ambulance staff at a loss for how to deal with the effects.
NWAS paramedic and St John’s Ambulance volunteer James Clarke said: “It's a hard area of medicine as often there are no lists of what chemicals are in the drug, we can only treat the after-effects and hope the tox screen at A+E will show the best course of treatment.”
Meanwhile, the government plans to bring in a Psychoactive Substances Bill which looks to introduce a blanket ban on legal highs, but this has already been criticised by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who say the bill would be "impossible" to implement.
So, are legal highs the biggest problem facing today’s ambulance staff? Student paramedic Ollie Raven had the final word: “Advertised and used like sweets, unpredictable outcomes, hard for us to manage. Yes they are a very big challenge.”