Legal highs, created by ‘tweaking’ lethal substances like cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamine, are only legal as the law hasn’t yet caught up with those creating them.
The Government is considering a ban across the whole of the UK, but in the meantime, clever chemists are taking advantage and mass-producing these deadly drugs.
It is still illegal to sell them to under 18s, or market them for human consumption, so they are sold as ‘bath salts’, incense, or plant food.
And the worrying thing for parents in the Harrogate district is the ease with which these drugs are available.
There is a ‘headshop’ in Harrogate, selling these substances perfectly legally.
Young people are travelling to Leeds, where there are 2-for-1 offers. And they are openly sold on the internet - for a third of the price of the illegal drug they are imitating.
The Harrogate Advertiser Series’ Investigations Reporter Ruby Kitchen visited a popular website and placed an order for a product called Black Mamba - imitating skunk cannabis.
Within five minutes, and for £7.95, she was able to secure a 1g bag which, as promised, was delivered to our offices in a discreet white envelope.
The ingredients, listed on the back, are revealed in a long line of letters and numbers, illegible to anybody but the most advanced chemist.
It has a warning on the back - cautioning the user that this product is not for human consumption, and that it may cause dizziness, tingling, disorientation, vomiting and headaches.
It doesn’t say that can also lead to hallucinations, delirium, epileptic seizures, acute psychosis, and heart attacks.
Nor does it say that its extensive use has coined the phrase ‘Mambulances’, because of the sheer volume of people being taken to A&E by paramedics.
THE INVESTIGATION - Deadly new drugs in Harrogate
Deadly new drugs are taking hold in the district, a Harrogate Advertiser investigation can reveal.
This new wave of legal highs, so called because these substances fall outside the law, are an imitation of existing drugs including heroin, cocaine, speed and cannabis.
With a clever ‘tweak’ in their chemical make-up, they can’t be classed as unlawful, but they are just as lethal as their illicit counterparts.
And children in the Harrogate district as young as 12 years old are being targeted.
“They are spreading like wildfire,” said Andy Kirk, of the Harrogate Homeless Shelter.
“A lot of young people in Harrogate are using these legal highs and their parents just aren’t aware. This is really new.”
The use of these deadly drugs has been on the rise in the Harrogate district over the last two years, the investigation can reveal, with a new surge in the last six months.
VICTIM - ‘I turned to crime to fund legal high habit’
One man from Harrogate lost everything due to addiction to legal highs. For the first time, as part of the Advertiser campaign, he opens up about the harrowing depths he sank to.
Prison. Shoplifting, stolen cars. A criminal record. And living in a homeless hostel in Harrogate.
For one young man, with a private school education and a wealth of opportunities at his fingertips, his fall from grace has been devastating.
“Using these drugs cost me everything,” he said. “I lost my relationship, and I thought that would last forever. I lost all the money I had saved, my friends and family.
“I’m in a homeless hostel, starting from scratch.
“Just don’t go there. Drugs might numb the world for a little while, but they don’t solve anything.
“The consequences are horrendous.”
This young man, who has asked to remain anonymous, has agreed to share his story in an effort to stop others falling for the same traps he did.
Born and brought up in Harrogate, with the support of a loving family and a privileged education, he admits he was quite naive.
Offered a free sample of a cannabis substitute at a football match in 2011, he thought nothing of giving it a try.
But, he says, he had no idea how quickly he would become addicted. And how quickly this addiction would spiral out of control.
“It said it was made from plants and vegetables,” he said. “I just thought I’d try it. I ended up buying some.
“From there I started to order it online. Soon, I was taking it all the time.”
His behaviour became erratic, often manic. Within months the salesman, top seller for his company, had lost his job.
He spent all his money. And, despite having lost his licence, he was caught driving by police.
“I was sent to prison,” he said. “I was locked up 23 hours a day, and the only thing to do is watch TV.
“Your mind deteriorates, you become a vegetable. It was like being in a nursing home just waiting to die.”
That was the first of three trips to prison.
Each time he leaves, he is determined to stay clean, and he succeeds for months at a time.
He got a job in recruitment, even building his way up to an assistant manager post in one role, with money to spare for laptops and skiing holidays abroad.
But soon, the pull of these drugs drags him back under.
“I feel I’m not sharp enough anymore - my mind is too slow. I’ll put on weight, I have no confidence,” he said.
“I think I’ll just take a small amount, to help. And it works, for a bit.”
But each time, it soon spirals out of control.
On the day he was due to start a new job, he didn’t get up on time and he got fired.
He pawned everything he owned to buy drugs. His girlfriend broke up with him. His parents threw him out. At one point, he went on the run from police.
“I was becoming aggressive. My behaviour was erratic,” he said. “I was doing whatever I could do to buy it.
“I started walking miles to Leeds every day to shoplift to buy drugs.
“I lost my house.
“I ended up living in hotels, fraudulently as I had no way to pay.
“Of course I got caught. This time, I ended up at Strangeways in Manchester.”
He is reluctant to talk about his time in prison, other than to say that he withdrew within himself to survive.
“I never thought, five years ago, that it would come to this,” he said.
“I think of myself as a decent person. I would never steal from a shop. I would always help other people. But I have racked up a criminal record.
“For me, it’s been a case of getting somewhere in life, then doing something stupid and becoming manic.
“I get into trouble. I go to prison. I get desperate and start using again.
“It’s become a cycle which has gone on for years. It’s cost me everything I have.”
He came out of prison at Christmas. Now clean, he is determined to stay that way. Every week he meets a drugs counsellor, and he is looking for work.
But the hardest thing for him is looking back on all that he has lost.
“I look at people around me that are my age, settling down, having families, who have established a career, and that really gets to me,” he said.
“What hurts the most is losing a relationship with a decent girl. I knew I would lose her. But I thought that I could control it. I’m lost now as to how to go forward.
“I don’t think people realise there is a problem in Harrogate. It’s not as visible here.
“Maybe it’s because Harrogate is quite well to do, people do it at home instead of on the streets.
“It isn’t as bad here as it is in the cities.
“But it’s something that’s getting worse. It will get out of hand.”
- While the numbers are still small, hospital admissions for poisonings from these legal highs have more than doubled in the last two years.
- Reports of drug crime is up 45 per cent in Harrogate town centre year on year, from 62 to 91, with a 15 per cent rise across the district.
- Police say it is still an “emerging issue” rather than a problem, but have attributed this rise in part to legal high use, as well as a change in policing priorities.
- Homeless charities say they have seen a huge surge in the number of people becoming addicted to these new psychoactive substances (NPS) in the last six months alone.
- And police research reveals that 30 per cent of those taking them in the region are aged just 12 to 17 years old.
- This is leading to a new wave of child sexual exploitation, say experts, with young girls being groomed by older men offering them highs.
The Harrogate Advertiser investigation, part one of which is published today, explores the depth of reach of these toxic substances in our area, speaking to victims and those who are directly affected. Over coming weeks, the series is to speak to police, councils, schools, hospitals and drugs charities.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the use of these drugs, just over the last six months,” said Rehan Shah, project manager at Harrogate district youth homeless charity Foundation.
“It’s a Russian roulette - who knows what they are taking. A whole lot of new drugs are being thrown into the mix. And how much of it is hidden away?”
The number of people affected is still small compared to cannabis and alcohol - and the problem in Harrogate isn’t yet on the same scale as in many bigger towns and cities.
But partner agencies are now working together to tackle the issue, setting up action groups and awareness days in the district to spread the message.
The Harrogate Advertiser Series investigation, part one of which is published today, explores the depth of reach of these toxic substances in our area, speaking to victims and those who are directly affected.
Over coming days and weeks, the series is to publish a comprehensive report of what is being done to combat the problem, from policing to councils, schools, hospitals and drugs charities.
It is to explore what is being done elsewhere to tackle this emerging trend, from banning it outright in public in Lincoln to shutting down shops in Blackpool.
Join the debate - have your say about what can - and should - be done. Visit www.harrogateadvertiser.co.uk, Facebook.com/HarrogateAdvertiser, or write to the Editor at 1 Cardale Park, Harrogate, HG3 1RZ.
- Have you been affected by legal highs? Back the campaign - contact Investigations Reporter Ruby Kitchen on 01423 707509 or email email@example.com.