Legal highs: staying on top of the flood of novel psychoactive substances

Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2015 Apr;5(2):97-132. doi: 10.1177/2045125314559539.


There has been growing clinical, public, and media awareness and concern about the availability and potential harmfulness of so-called 'legal highs', which are more appropriately called new or novel psychoactive substances (NPS). A cat-and-mouse process has emerged wherein unknown chemists and laboratories are producing new, and as yet nonproscribed, compounds for human consumption; and as soon as they are banned, which they inevitably are, slightly modified analogues are produced to circumvent new laws. This rapidly changing environment, 81 new substances were identified in 2013 alone, has led to confusion for clinicians, psychopharmacologists, and the public at large. Our difficulties in keeping up with the process has had a two-fold negative effect: the danger of ignoring what is confusing; and the problem that some of the newer synthesized compounds appear ever more potent. This review aims to circumscribe a quick moving and growing field, and to categorize NPS into five major groups based upon their 'parent' compounds: stimulants similar to cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy; cannabinoids; benzodiazepine based drugs; dissociatives similar to ketamine and phencyclidine (PCP); and those modelled after classic hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin. Pharmacodynamic actions, subjective and physical effects, harmfulness, risk of dependency and, where appropriate, putative clinical potentials are described for each class. Clinicians might encounter NPS in various ways: anecdotal reportage; acute intoxication; as part of a substance misuse profile; and as a precipitant or perpetuating factor for longer-term physical and psychological ill health. Current data are overall limited, and much of our knowledge and treatment strategies are based upon those of the 'parent' compound. There is a critical need for more research in this field, and for professionals to make themselves more aware of this growing issue and how it might affect those we see clinically and try to help: a brave new world of so-called 'psychonauts' consuming NPS will also need informed 'psychotherapeutonauts'. The paper should serve as a primer for clinicians and interested readers, as well as provide a framework into which to place the new substances that will inevitably be synthesized in the future.

Keywords: legal highs; novel psychoactive substances.

Publication types

  • Review