Hospital admissions for synthetic cannabis use have increased by a third, a worldwide drugs survey has found, while "super dose" ecstasy pills are hospitalising drug takers in increasing numbers, and users inhaling nitrous oxide are suffering numbness and shooting pains for weeks afterwards.
Legal highs, like Spice, which have resulted in scores of users being hospitalised across the UK, were "more likely to leave people needing emergency medical treatment" than any other drug, the Global Drug Survey 2015 found.
The study revealed that 3.5% of those who used the drug last year sought medical treatment - a 30% jump on the previous year - and a continuation of a three year trend. As a contrast only 1.2% of those surveyed sought treatment after drinking alcohol; 1% after smoking cannabis; 0.6% after snorting cocaine; 0.9% after taking MDMA or ecstasy, and 0.5% after taking horse tranquiliser ketamine.
The study, based on the experiences of 100,000 drug users, also backed up results from tests published in March showing users of synthetic cannabis were "30 times" more likely to be hospitalised after smoking it, than if they took high potency hydroponic, or skunk strained cannabis, researchers said.
The findings come days after the government announced a string of proposals to tackle legal highs. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which follows similar legislation in Ireland, will introduce a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs - officially known as new psychoactive substances (NPSs). Selling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, for recreational purposes would lead to seven years jail, under the plans.
When the bill was announced Policing Minister Mike Penning said: "Young people who take these substances are taking exceptional risks with their health and those who profit from their sale have a complete disregard for the potential consequences. That's why we are targeting the suppliers.
"The landmark Bill will fundamentally change the way we tackle new psychoactive substances - and put an end to the game of cat and mouse in which new drugs appear on the market more quickly than Government can identify and ban them."
The study found the legal high was very addictive, with 60% of those using it 50 times or more, "reporting withdrawal symptoms on cessation".
The surveyors said they "remained confused" as to why a market for such an "unsafe and less pleasant drug than the natural alternative" existed, but said price was a key factor, with the average gram of synthetic cannabis costing £5, compared to £8 for the same amount of cannabis. Other reasons could include having limited access to cannabis, or users wanting to avoid failing a drug test.
The study reads: "Think your train drivers, miners and truckers!"
Another trend to come out of the survey was increased hospital admissions due to ecstasy use, which had tripled to 0.9% over the last three years. The survey put this down to the creation of "super dose pills" which were loaded with huge quantities of MDMA.
The study reports: "Sometimes these pills contain in excess of 200mg and occasionally 300mg of MDMA, twice and three times what most people think is a reasonable dose."
The researchers spoke with the editor of Vice Magazine's Dutch edition, Thijs Roes, who has interviewed several ecstasy pill producers about the increased potency, and what was driving it. He told them it was a competition between drug manufacturers.
It quotes Mr Roes as saying: "What they’re doing is basically a pissing contest. One told me it was a competition between manufacturers and a race against themselves. The other described his 330mg pill as a flagship product, as a way to get known in the scene. "
The study found, on average 1/4gm of MDMA was consumed during a session, but users in the UK were having far more, at about 0.42mg a time.
Another key finding in the study is the damage done by inhaling nitrous oxide. The study found that those inhaling the gas had become increasingly concerned about its impact on their health - increasing from 2.5% in 2014, to 7.5% - and that some 4% of users were experiencing symptoms including numbness, tinging sensations in the face and shooting pains, lasting several weeks after their last hit.
The study explained that nitrous oxide disables the body's Vitamin B12 and that the lack of that vitamin – commonly in vegetarians - can cause anaemia and nerve damage – called a peripheral neuropathy.
"Somewhere in the region of 4% of last year users are reporting symptoms consistent with a peripheral neuropathy (numbness / tingling in face, arms, mouth, legs/shooting pains in limbs that persisted for weeks after last use)."
Legal Highs Crackdown Begins As Sellers Could Face Seven Years In Prison
The study also looked at where users were buying their drugs, and found that more people started buying them online in 2014 than ever before, despite the closure of the Silk Road drugs website the previous year. It was thought the closure may stem the frequency of online drug purchases.
Silk Road was shut by the FBI in October 2013 and its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life imprisonment last month.
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More than 11,750 respondents said they had purchased drugs online, both on conventional websites and on “darknet” sites like Silk Road. A quarter of those people said they first did so in 2014, more than any previous year. MDMA was the most popular drug purchased.
The study found that cocaine remained the most expensive drug in the world per gram. It was most expensive in Australia where it peaked at £184 a gram. In The UK it sold for between £54 to £78.
The study also revealed that a new type of cannabis called butane hash oil was also becoming popular and was "starting to nudge its way into the cannabis-using community".
It said 2,500 people had shared their thoughts on this new form of cannabis, saying it was "faster and stronger".