Since the 1980s, new psychoactive substances have been referred to as 'designer drugs', though in recent years the term 'legal highs' has become popular. 'Legal highs' refers to a broad category of unregulated psychoactive compounds or products containing them, that are marketed as legal alternatives to well-known controlled drugs, usually sold via the Internet or in smart shops or head shops. This term is applied to a wide range of synthetic and plant-derived substances and products, including 'herbal-highs', 'party pills', and 'research chemicals', many of which may be specifically designed to circumvent existing drug controls. The term itself, though in common usage, remains problematic (1).
Prevalence and Internet availability
In Europe, there are few studies on the prevalence of 'legal highs', as a collective term or referring to individual substances. A 2008 Polish study among 1 400 18-year-old students found that 3.5 % had used 'legal highs' at least once in their life, while a follow-up study on 1 260 students in 2010 reported an increase to 11.4 %. The use of 'legal highs' during the last 12 months was reported by 2.6 % of students in 2008, and increased to 7.2 % in 2010. Last month use, however, dropped from 1.5 % in 2008 to 1.1 % in 2010. Further studies on the prevalence of 'legal highs' are expected from the Czech Republic, Ireland and Spain in 2011.
The EMCDDA monitors the online availability of 'legal highs' through regular targeted Internet snapshots, the most recent one using 18 of the 23 official EU languages (2), spoken as mother tongue by 97 % of the EU population, as well as Russian and Ukranian. In addition to searching for the term 'legal highs', the substances covered in these studies include 'herbal highs' ('Spice', kratom and salvia), GBL (gamma-butyrolactone) and hallucinogenic mushrooms. The 2011 Internet snapshot identified 314 online shops selling 'legal highs' that would dispatch products to at least one EU Member State. Establishing the country of origin of online shops is difficult, but based on attributes such as contact information, country code domain, currency and shipping information, the United Kingdom appeared to be the most common (Figure 20). English was the most common interface language, accounting for 83 % of the online shops surveyed in 2011. Kratom and salvia were the two most frequently offered 'legal highs', available in 92 and 72 online shops, respectively.
The availability of 'Spice'-like products on the Internet continued to fall in 2011, with 12 of the surveyed online retailers offering the substances, down from 21 shops in 2010 and 55 in 2009. In 2011, the price of a 3-gram packet of 'Spice'-like product was EUR 12-18, compared to around EUR 20-30 in 2009. This parallel drop in availability and price may suggest competition from other new drugs.
(1) See the box 'Not so "legal highs"' on this page.
(2) Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, German, Greek, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Latvian, Hungarian, Maltese, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak and Swedish.