There is nothing innocent about ‘legal highs’

Headteacher at St Mary's College, St Walburga's Road, Blackpool, Mr Stephen Tierney who is warning against the legal high, Pandora's Box
Headteacher at St Mary's College, St Walburga's Road, Blackpool, Mr Stephen Tierney who is warning against the legal high, Pandora's Box
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The problem with anything called legal is that it sounds innocent, as if there can’t be anything wrong or dangerous about it.

Try telling that to the family of 18-year-old Adam Hunt.

Legal high Pandora's box

Legal high Pandora's box

He died at his home in Southampton last year after taking AMT, a powerful hallucinogen which acts in a similar way to LSD.

AMT is a legal high. There are many different kinds of legal highs, another being Pandora’s Box.

That is what five pupils at St Mary’s Catholic College in Blackpool smoked last month.

What happened next was a nightmare, both for the students involved, their parents and their teachers.

One girl had what appeared to be a severe fit. The school rang 999 and she was taken to hospital along with two other pupils who were also in a bad way. Another two pupils were treated at school by paramedics.

It emerged they had taken a legal high and although all five have thankfully made a full recovery, it is a day headteacher Stephen Tierney will not forget in a hurry.

“This was a massive incident, I’ve never had to deal with anything like this in 14 years as a headteacher,” he said.

“But although it was a terrible day for myself and my staff, it would have been much worse to be a parent of one of the children involved.

“We are just thankful and grateful everyone involved is OK.”

Mr Tierney has called for action, both on a local and national scale, about legal highs.

An investigation carried out by the school revealed there are two shops selling legal highs, one in the centre of Blackpool, the other in South Shore.

These can be accessed on Facebook, an order placed, and the drug dropped off at an address within 15 minutes.

Shops aren’t meant to sell to under 18s but this is a voluntary rather than a legal requirement.

As a teacher with three children of his own, Mr Tierney struggles to comprehend how this can be allowed to happen.

“The free availability of these legal highs just absolutely frightens me,” he said.

“And the fact the police are almost powerless to act outside of Trading Standards law just seems totally inadequate as a response.

“When you’ve got things that are illegal, people understand they are illegal for a reason. The problem with the name legal highs is that it makes it sound safe – because if they weren’t you’d ban them wouldn’t you?

“The name sticks with you. They are a legal high – they must be OK.

“So a youngster might think I’m not going to take those illegal ones, I’ll take the legal one. And it’s just totally wrong given what potentially might happen.”

Mr Tierney intends to speak to parents about social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter and how they can be used to order the drugs.

“There are two issues really,” he said. “One is the actual legal highs and the other is the use of social media.

“The parents of the pupils involved here couldn’t believe how easy it was for their children to get hold of these substances.

“Parents have to understand Twitter and Facebook allow the users to send messages which are totally confidential, that aren’t displayed publicly.

“You either ban your children from ever having a phone, laptop, access to the internet – or you educate them.

“It is about balancing the fact the world has shifted and what you can do just on a mobile phone, and it is the job of us and parents to educate youngsters about its appropriate use.”

Of course youngsters, no matter how well educated or well raised, will do stupid things. I had a great upbringing and went to a good school but I’ve done things I regret.

“It’s part of growing up – you live and learn.

Mr Tierney agrees and argues that’s why it’s so worrying these legal drugs are around and so easy to get hold of – because youngsters might be tempted to try them.

“What came out of our investigation into what happened was the ease with which people could just phone up, pay for these drugs and have them delivered anywhere,” he explained.

“I had no idea you could do that prior to this incident. And I’d say 99.9 per cent of parents won’t know there are shops in South Shore and Blackpool you can get these legal highs from.

“The police were very good but they said from the very beginning there were limits to what they could do.

“They knew what was going on but the substances are called legal highs because they are legal – so you can’t ban them, despite how dangerous they are. That shocked me.”

Legal highs are usually labelled not fit for human consumption.

The shops which sell them argue it is like selling a bottle of bleach. It is perfectly legal to do so. There is a warning on bleach not to drink it. If somebody does they will damage themselves.

But bleach is for a purpose. “I’ve not a clue what you would do with a legal high other than take it and I think this is a loophole the shops have exploited,” said Mr Tierney.

“I could be wrong.

“ It could be these shops are as genuinely shocked about it as we are. But if that’s the case you think they’d take much greater care when selling it.

“The danger is this could become freely available to young mid teens, who are sometimes prone to making daft decisions, and you just wonder whether that is really what Blackpool needs.”

Mr Tierney is careful to point out this is a national problem, not just Blackpool’s.

But in a town that has more problems than most, he wants a campaign involving not just schools and parents but media and key local figures to warn about the dangers of legal highs.

“If as a community we say we do not want these in things in our town, and actually take these businesses to the point where they don’t make a profit and might close, then good,” he added.

“But we would probably requires statutes and laws as well because at the moment there aren’t any.”

He added: “The big thing I’d love to see come out of this is that actually the access to it, the ease, doesn’t happen. That way you are likely to think about it a bit more than if you can just have it 15 minutes later.

“Certainly something needs to be done, otherwise it is a matter of time before somewhere soon a tragedy occurs.”

Legal Highs - The facts

Substances designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. Chemically different enough to not be covered by the law.

Made on an industrial scale in countries like China and India and then packaged and distributed throughout Europe.

Cannot be sold for legal consumption - so instead sold as bath salts or plant food.

Considered a psychoactive drug.

Sold as powder, pills, or capsules.

Deaths caused by legal highs - risen from 10 deaths in 2009 to at least 68 in 2012. According to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths.

‘Parents need to be aware of this’

In 2012 Paul Clare and Tracey Robinson of Kent Road, Blackpool, found their 15-year-old son on his bedroom floor, foaming at the mouth after taking the notorious “herbal” high Black Mamba. Fearing for his life they called for paramedics after he made attempts to jump from his second floor window when he became convinced a stranger was in his bedroom.

Black Mamba, which is sold as incense and considered a synthetic cannabis, claims to give users an extra ‘buzz’. In this instance it was believed the boy bought the legal high from Foxhall market and smoked it with a 17-year-old friend through a pipe.

The drug quickly took affect, causing the boy to start coughing, hallucinate and then collapse. At the time Mr Clare, 34, warned other parents about the availability of these legal highs, he said:

“Parents need to be aware of this and that it’s on sale in shops. I hope what happened to my boy will convince other kids to not take it, I nearly lost my son.”

What the medical professionals have to say...

Simon Tucker, consultant at Blackpool Victoria Hospital’s Emergency Department, said: “There are probably two or three cases a week of people coming with problems associated with these drugs.

“They are mostly reduced consciousness, palpitations, nausea, vomiting and generally feeling low. We haven’t seen too many severe cases, but one of the three girls who were brought in after taking it at school was treated in ICU.”

Mr Tucker said the problem was there was no known antidote to these legal highs.

“Very few poisons have antidotes but have quite significant side effects,” he added.

“These drugs are very dangerous and misunderstood.”

Mr Tucker said the majority of patients brought in suffering the side effects of legal highs were younger people.

He said the typical side effects were palpitations and arrhythmia as well as depressive episodes, but added in worst cases the drugs could cause brain damage and even death.

He said: “Socially there is a big problem with so called ‘legal highs’. A lot of these drugs can be bought on the street and in shops in Blackpool town centre as well as on the internet and they’re even advertising in magazines.

“Because of this people believe they are ‘legal’ and therefore are safe. They think if it was dangerous it wouldn’t be so easily available.

“I would appeal to people out there selling and using “legal highs” – these drugs are very dangerous and can have very serious side effects – including permanent brain damage and death.”

Dr Arif Rajpura, Blackpool Council’s director of public health, said: “There is limited research about legal highs and their effects. Although the drug is branded as legal it does not mean the drug is safe. They may contain similar health risks to illegal drugs.

“Effects of legal highs can include reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, coma and seizures. The health risks are increased if taken with alcohol or other drugs.

“The effects of the drug are dependent on the strength and an individual can experience effects such as anxiety and panic, and disorientation. More serious effects may be experienced such as breathing difficulties, tight chest, racing heartbeat, palpitations, shakes and sweats which can lead to severe panic.

“The risks to an individual taking a legal high can include agitation, seizures, hypertension, vomiting and low potassium levels.

“The long-term effects of taking such drugs is not yet known.”

What is the council doing to stop it?

Blackpool Council said public protection officers had carried out a large number of visits to premises which were selling goods as ‘legal highs’ to ensure the goods are indeed legal.

Classification of products has changed on a number of occasions and officers are monitoring developments.

A spokesman said the council was keen to discourage businesses from selling the goods due to their 
potential harmful effects and promised that 
businesses which do so can expect close scrutiny on 
every aspect of their business.

They added the council would continue to carry out product testing and work with the police and health services on the issue.

Coun Eddie Collett, Blackpool Council cabinet member for public health, said: “I am a strong believer that you can’t legislate people into being sensible.

Responsibility

“Adults know full-well that taking an unknown substance that will have an unknown effect on you is just plain stupid.

“All adults know that 
children need protecting that is why we will always come down hard on anyone that seeks to harm them 
(or neglects to protect
 them).

“But when it comes to adults, it’s about taking personal responsibility.

“We’re all capable of doing occasionally stupid things, but we know that there are consequences.”

‘Technically legal does not make them safe’

The availability of legal highs is alarming, says Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard.

“It’s always a concern when these drugs are being taken despite that fact we do not know the health impact they can have, and we know there can be major consequences as proved with the St Mary’s case.

“The term ‘legal’ implies that these are good things our young people are getting hold of, in fact just because they are technically legal does not make them safe.

“We know the Home Office is seeking advice of what should be doing about legal highs and the need to make them a classed drug.

“But in my opinion this needs to be moving a lot quicker.

“The longer this takes, the more people are going to A&E and there is the chance the worst could happen on the Fylde coast.

“We just want to make sure there is a speedy conclusion to the Home Office review on legal highs.”