“I Spent Thousands on an Addiction to Legal Highs”

Clockwork Orange – a blend of ‘herbal incense‘ Photo credit: Wales Online

by Bridget Owen

* = Name has been changed for anonymity

In February this year, Emma*,19, and her friends began to experiment with ‘legal highs‘. She had no idea how dangerous and addictive they were until she’d been using them everyday for a number of months, and found herself unable to stop.

“We’d heard about legal highs from a friend, and wanted to see what it was all about. I’ve always been weary of drugs and what I’m putting into my body, but what possible harm could a legal drug do!?”

Legal highs come in a number of forms, and are sold cheaply across the country.

Emma* was using a herbal blend of ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ which is supposed to mimic the effects of Class B drug – Cannabis, the most widely used illegal drug in the UK.

This blend, usually referred to as ‘herbal incense’ is legal only because it is not yet fully known what the drug consists of. It is advertised that the high gives you a ‘buzz’ for just under an hour.

Certain forms were banned from sale in February from ‘head shops’ but manufacturers changed the blends and re-manufactured the drug under a different name to re-distribute it. Some of those that were banned in February are called ‘Black Mamba’, and ‘Mexxy’.

The long term effects of ‘herbal incense ‘ have not yet been established, but there have been many cases of legal highs going wrong in recent news. Just two weeks ago three teenagers were rushed to hospital in Wales, after falling ill from taking a blend of herbal incense. They were reported to be vomiting blood.

The legal high is attractive to young people with it's packaging

The legal high is attractive to young people with it’s bright packaging

“I didn’t research the drug before I used it. I acquired it easily, and the man in the shop told me everything I thought I needed to know. He sold it like it was a cupcake or something, passing it off so gently. Little did I know this was the beginning of an awful experience.”

Emma* and her friends used the drug for an evening, but none of her friends were that interested by it and saw it as a waste- they didn’t like the drugs effects. They stopped using the drug, they had work to do, and full time jobs. However, Emma* had enjoyed the feeling the drug gave her.

As a first year University student, she didn’t really see that she had much to do, and carried on using, usually smoking it all day, everyday. She found that the more she smoked it, the more she got used to it, and needed to use more each time. She was soon spending £150 per week and going through more every day.

“My tolerance levels changed so quickly, I couldn’t get the feeling I wanted without using more. I used various blends of the drug when they became available. There were three head shops where I lived, all within a mile of each other. So there was a constant, easy supply.”

It wasn’t until she went home for a weekend in March that she really withdrew from the drug.

“I had one last hit the morning before I got on the train to go home. By 5pm I had the chills, I was sweating and no appetite, like I was getting ill. I passed it off to my parents as the flu, and when I returned to my student flat I continued to use the drug. I had no idea that my body had been suffering from withdrawal.”

As a couple more months passed, Emma* began to lose sight of everything. Her personal relationships began to fail, and she couldn’t get up and go anywhere without using the drug first. Her life completely revolved around this fix.

“I would wake up in the night, sweating, if I hadn’t used for a few hours. I was restless and angry if I wasn’t able to use. If I was halfway through my stash I would have already planned when I would go out to get more. I couldn’t think about anything else. When my boyfriend came home at night he would just find me in a barely concious state. I would fall asleep constantly, sometimes halfway through the day, and didn’t have any pride in my appearance any more- something I had previously found really important.”

Although Emma* knew she had changed, she still didn’t see her addiction as a real problem or didn’t want to. She continued to spend money on the high. The closest people to her knew, and had mentioned it, but she would always deny her addiction, and began to try and hide it.

“I knew deep down I had a problem. The turning point was when I found myself shaking, stood outside a ‘head shop’ waiting for it to open on a Sunday afternoon.

“I’d run out, was having a stressful day, and the shop owner was an hour late. I felt nervous thinking he wasn’t going to show up at all. I couldn’t manage without.

“There were other people waiting for it to open too. I found myself chatting to them about it opening, going onto talking about our habits. They also used this herbal high, but they were the kind of people I would never usually associate with.

“When the shop finally opened I was the first in, and buying the most. I casually handed over £50 and rushed home to smoke it. This would usually mean the end of worrying and panic for the day, but I just felt disgusted in myself. Hanging around outside a shop with other drug users waiting for it to open was the last straw. Especially as I was so jittery and panicky at the thought of not being able to get any more.”

Research into the drug also helped change Emma’s* mind about using.

“As soon as I looked for people in a similar situation, I found them, posting from across the world posting about their troubles with addiction to herbal blends. A little on-line community welcomed people to share their stories and I felt able to talk about my experience.

“I felt so much happier knowing I wasn’t alone. They also gave really good advice about how I should go about slow withdrawal from the drug to make it easier to stop. Some of those in the community stated that some of the blends had made them hallucinate and feel sick.”

After reading up about addiction, she began to plan how she would come off the drug which was all down to careful planning. Emma* decided she didn’t want to involve anyone else in her struggle.

“Even though people wanted to help, I felt ashamed of the person I’d become, and became determined to fight this addiction myself. I didn’t tell anyone I was dealing with the problem, I wanted to keep things as normal as possible to keep my mind off it.”

“I was advised to slow my intake of the drug down, instead of cutting it out completely. I wanted to go to a GP but I still felt unable to talk to someone about it. I began to cut my amounts down over three days. It wasn’t easy. I cracked and went to buy some as soon as I’d run out, making the withdrawal process begin all over again.”

“It was so frustrating having to fight a constant battle with myself.”

“The first three days of my final withdrawal were the worst. The chills started immediately I couldn’t control my temperature. I’d be sat shivering one second and sweating the next. I had no appetite at all. I would try and force myself to eat but I would just feel sick. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did sleep I would wake up soaked in sweat.”

Emma* has now been drug free for three weeks, and is beginning to feel and look better in herself. Coming out of an anxious depression she is feeling much more positive about the future.

“I still have the most random uncontrollable mood swings, coming off and staying off has been the most difficult thing I’ve done so far. It’s about knowing you have a problem and wanting to stop, and I was my own worst enemy.

“Knowing I’ve beaten the addiction makes me really happy, it proves I can do anything I can put my mind to.

“It won’t change the fact that I’ve spent thousands of pounds on the drug, I’m in a heap of debt, and I have nothing but bad memories to show for it, but I have defeated this problem, I have learnt from it, and I have a healthy bright future ahead of me.

“People needs to be wary about ‘legal highs’. Just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”

Although Emma* has chosen to keep her identity anonymous, she is happy to answer any questions you may have about legal highs and addiction. Please send any questions to polkadotsandpotions@gmail.com

David Hilton-Turner, Chesterfield, was recently effected by the legal high Clockwork Orange when his son Matthew was rushed to hospital from taking it. His son has since recovered but the ordeal has spurred David into a fight against these highs being sold legally in the UK.

David has begun his campaign by speaking to Look North, Toby Perkins, MP for Chesterfield, and his sons story featured on the front page of the Derbyshire times last week.

Read Matthew’s story Here

David: “I feel like this matter needs to be pursued and needs the utmost attention and I am not prepared to let this matter dwindle into thin air.”

To join the fight against legal highs David has created a Facebook group -“UK against legal highs” which he encourages people with their own stories of legal highs to share and support the cause.

If you’re confused about drugs, or worried about someone else, you can also Talk to Frank. FRANK has confidential drugs information and advice is available 24-hours-a-day.

Drugs information from the NHS

  • To find out more about specific drugs, including mephedrone (meow meow), BZP, GBL and naphyrone, go to the A-Z of Drugs on the FRANK website.
  • For confidential advice about all aspects of drugs and drugs use, call the FRANK helpline on 0800 77 66 00.


Although these drugs are marketed as legal substances, this doesn’t mean that they are safe or approved for people to use. It just means that they’ve not been declared illegal to use and possess. They are still normally considered illegal to sell under medicines legislation.

Some drugs marketed as legal highs actually contain some ingredients that are illegal to possess.

The risks

Legal highs can carry serious health risks. The chemicals they contain have in most cases never been used in drugs for human consumption before, so haven’t been tested to show that they are safe. Users can never be certain what they are taking and what the effects might be.

Other risks:

  • You increase the risk to yourself if you combine alcohol with any legal or illegal substance that causes a high, including the risk of death.
  • Reduced inhibitions, drowsiness, excited or paranoid states, coma, seizures and death.
  • Because legal highs are often new and, in many cases, the actual chemical ingredients in a branded product can be changed without you knowing, the risks are unpredictable.
  • It is likely that a drug sold as a ‘legal high’ may contain one or more substances that are actually illegal to possess.

When to seek medical help

Most problems with short-term use of legal highs will settle after you stop taking them. However, the negative effects of some legal highs can take a few days to wear off completely, just like the comedown from stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines.

If you think you are having a serious negative reaction soon after taking a legal high or you experience problems that do not settle with a little time out, fluids and fresh air, get medical help straight away by going to the accident and emergency department of your nearest hospital.

Credit: NHS

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