Homeless services in the Harrogate district say they have seen a huge surge in the number of people using legal highs.
Vulnerable people, who may have previously been using major drugs like heroin and cocaine are now turning to these new psychoactive substances.
But, say those in charge of providing help and a bed to sleep in for people on the streets, this isn’t a good thing.
“The standing joke here has been that we almost prefer people being on heroin,” said Andy Kirk, project leader at the Harrogate Homeless Project. “At least we knew what we were dealing with. We know the signs. How to help. These drugs are just so hard to predict. They are so readily available and so cheap. And nobody knows the health impact.”
The homeless project runs a 16-bed unit in Bower Road in Harrogate as well as emergency shelter to ensure nobody spends a second night sleeping rough on the district’s streets.
The charity is often the first port of call for the most vulnerable in our society, and the staff there are highly trained to help people from all walks of life.
Sadly, says Andy, a large number of the people they see are affected by drugs and addiction.
And while they started to see legal highs first appear in Harrogate a year or two ago, there has been a huge surge in the last six months.
“They are spreading like wildfire,” he said. “We have a lot of addicted residents, who take it on a daily basis. It’s a real concern for us.”
It’s young people, mainly under the age of 25, who are using them he said.
Some are going into a ‘head shop’, a speciality shop which sells them in Harrogate, others are travelling to Leeds where it’s cheaper and then buying in bulk.
“It used to be a bottle of cider or cannabis for young people,” said Mr Kirk. “But they are moving away from traditional drugs.
“The scary thing is, we are now seeing a new wave of grooming of young people as a result.
“People are going to Leeds to buy these legal highs, and then giving them to kids who are vulnerable.
“A lot of young people in Harrogate are using these legal highs and their parents just aren’t aware. This is really new.”
And the impact on everyone is so different, he said.
“Psychosis is a big problem. I’ve seen young people cutting themselves after a binge. I’ve seen someone so wired they stayed awake for two or three days.
“We are still learning what to look for. And it affects everybody in different ways.
“The big one at the moment is a plant substitute for cannabis. But it causes anxiety, depression, psychosis.”
This recent rise in the use of legal highs is a massive problem in Harrogate, he says.
And it can have a devastating impact: “It leads to homelessness. The loss of your job, of your family, of relationships breaking down.
“Homelessness is increasing and I think part of that is down to the arrival of these drugs.”
o 14% - of 14 year olds in North Yorkshire have tried drugs
o 97 - people died as a result of legal high use in the UK in 2012
o 190% - the increase that charity CRI saw in eight months last year for people asking for help
o 19% - of all legal highs tested by the Home Office had illegal drugs in
o 1/3 - the cost of these new drugs compared to their illegal counterparts
o 40% - of products sold online do not list ingredients
o 17% - of children aged 12 to 15 say they have been offered cannabis
o 14 - police incidents in North Yorkshire last year involving legal highs
o 6% - of 10-year-olds said they would know where to buy drugs
o 216% - the number of people receiving treatment for legal high use has risen sharply in England in the last five years
‘ELEMENT OF THE UNKNOWN’
Julie Everill, service manager at the Homeless Project, said the frightening thing about these new drugs is the unpredictablility.
“They bring in an element of the unknown,” she said. “Nobody knows the effects.
“Legal highs have been around for years, but we are seeing a real explosion. It’s impacting everywhere. Yes it’s legal, at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
She said the effects of the drugs differ from person to person: “We’ve had people say it is too intense - they are never trying them again.
“For others, it’s so addictive they just want more and more. We see people wondering around like zombies. They’re not 100 per cent sure what’s going on around them. If it’s night time or morning. It’s really worrying.”
And some of these drugs, she said, are so strong they are even too much for the district’s more hardened drug addicts. “Older drug users are staying away - even those that take heroin - as it’s so unknown,” she said.
“But this is the new cannabis to under 25s. This is a massive concern. It’s the unknown that’s worrying.
“We are finding something new that will have an even more devastating impact on young people’s mental health.”