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Title: A chemical analysis examining the pharmacology of novel psychoactive substances freely available over the internet and their impact on public (ill) health. Legal highs or illegal highs?
Authors: Ayres, Tammy C.
Bond, John W.
First Published: 31-Jul-2012
Publisher: BMJ Publishing Group Ltd
Citation: BMJ Open, 2012, 2 : e000977
Abstract: Objectives: Public Health England aims to improve the nation's health and acknowledges that unhealthy lifestyles, which include drug use, undermine society's health and well-being. Recreational drug use has changed to include a range of substances sold as ‘research chemicals’ but known by users as ‘legal highs’ (legal alternatives to the most popular illicit recreational drugs), which are of an unknown toxicity to humans and often include prohibited substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Consequently, the long-term effects on users' health and inconsistent, often illegal ingredients, mean that this group of drugs presents a serious risk to public health both now and in the future. Therefore, the aim of this study was to ascertain what is in legal highs, their legality and safety, while considering the potential impact, these synthetic substances might be having on public health. Design: A total of 22 products were purchased from five different internet sites, 18 months after the UK ban on substituted cathinones, like mephedrone, was introduced in April 2010. Each substance was screened to determine its active ingredients using accepted analytical techniques. Setting: The research was conducted in Leicestershire but has implications for the provision of primary and secondary healthcare throughout the UK. Results: Two products, both sold as NRG-2 from different internet suppliers, were found to contain the banned substituted cathinones 4-methylethcathinone (4-MEC) and 4-methylmethcathinone (4-MMC), the latter being present in much smaller quantities. Although sold as research chemicals and labelled ‘not for human consumption’, they are thinly disguised ‘legal highs’, available online in quantities that vary from 1 g to 1 kg. Conclusions: Despite amendments to legislation, prohibited class B substances are still readily available in large quantities over the internet. The findings suggest that these prohibited substances are being manufactured or imported into the UK on a large scale, which has serious implications for public health and clinicians who are ill equipped to deal with this newly emerging problem.
DOI Link: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000977
eISSN: 2044-6055
Version: Publisher Version
Status: Peer-reviewed
Type: Journal Article
Rights: Copyright © 2012 The authors. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License (
Appears in Collections:Published Articles, Dept. of Chemistry

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