'Legal highs'--novel and emerging psychoactive drugs: a chemical overview for the toxicologist

Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2012 Jan;50(1):15-24. doi: 10.3109/15563650.2011.645952.

Abstract

Introduction: 'Legal highs' are psychoactive chemicals which are sold from 'head shops', the internet and from street suppliers and may be possessed without legal restriction. An increase in the marketing of these materials has resulted in a corresponding increase in published reports of their adverse effects. However, a lack of primary literature pertaining to their chemistry, pharmacology and toxicology, makes an evaluation of their harm difficult. This review covers the basic chemistry of these novel psychoactive compounds and relates them to endogenous neurotransmitters and existing drugs of abuse.

Methods: A survey of the internet was used to identify websites that are marketing 'legal highs' in the UK. Trivial and systematic chemical compound names, for example methoxetamine, 4-methoxyphencycline, 4-fluorotropacocaine and ethyl phenidate were entered into PubMed to retrieve data on these compounds. This search elicited no citations. Other search terms which were more fruitful included desoxypipradrol, diphenylprolinol, methylenedioxy-2-amino-indane and methylenedioxy-2-amino-tetralin, alpha-methyltryptamine and 5-methoxy-N,N-diallyl-tryptamine.

Results: 'Legal highs' from the phenylethylamine, cocaine, tryptamine and phencyclidine classes are increasingly being marketed and, in the majority of cases, little is cited in the literature on their true chemical identity, pharmacology or toxicology.

Conclusions: 'Legal highs' are gaining in popularity and present clear challenges to toxicologists and society as a whole. Whilst improved use of existing legislation and development of new legislation can be used to reduce the supply of these materials, investment in better education for young people on the harms associated with 'legal highs' is needed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkaloids / adverse effects
  • Alkaloids / chemistry
  • Cocaine / analogs & derivatives
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / adverse effects*
  • Illicit Drugs / chemistry
  • Ketamine / adverse effects
  • Ketamine / chemistry
  • Methamphetamine / adverse effects
  • Methamphetamine / analogs & derivatives
  • Methamphetamine / chemistry
  • Phenethylamines / adverse effects
  • Phenethylamines / chemistry
  • Plant Extracts / adverse effects
  • Plant Extracts / chemistry
  • Psychotropic Drugs / adverse effects*
  • Psychotropic Drugs / chemistry
  • Salvia
  • Tryptamines / adverse effects
  • Tryptamines / chemistry
  • United Kingdom

Substances

  • Alkaloids
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Phenethylamines
  • Plant Extracts
  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Tryptamines
  • Methamphetamine
  • cathinone
  • Ketamine
  • mephedrone
  • Cocaine