For the past three months, YMCA has been speaking to young people all over England and Wales about the complex topic of legal highs. We've surveyed more than 1,000 people and spoken in depth to another hundred as we've made it our mission to find out the truth behind their use and their supposed 'popularity'. Now complete, one thing has become clear: those young people who had taken any synthetic cannabinoid substance, such as Spice or Black Mamba, had little positive to say about the experience.
Often lured by the term itself - Synthetic Cannabis - many young people have been inadvertently taking substances without the knowledge that their effects were actually more akin to Heroin, a Class A drug, than Cannabis, a Class C.
More positively, our research, released on Wednesday 25 May and entitled The Big Ban Theory, also showed that the use of Synthetic Cannabinoids is far from the norm within legal highs use. In fact, the majority of users we spoke to accessed the substances infrequently (59%) and also took those substances generally perceived to be less harmful, like Laughing Gas (76%).
Synthetic Cannabinoids substance use, however, represents what we have found to be the darker, hidden side of legal highs use - the side that we believe the Psychoactive Substances Act, which has now been introduced, will do little to tackle.
YMCA does welcome the fact that action is being taken but does not believe that the challenges posed by legal highs and the impact they have upon young people will be resolved solely by the imposition of a blanket ban.
The prevalence of illegal drugs, despite repeated attempts by governments to curb usage, illustrates that substance use in some form is almost inevitable. The harms that young people are experiencing in many cases, however, are not.
At YMCA, we believe that the need to act on the harms caused by legal highs represents a very real chance to examine the way in which we address drug use among all young people.
Accordingly, we are calling on the Government to look beyond this blanket ban of legal highs and implement a number of fundamental recommendations, which you can read in full on our website to help reduce the harms suffered by many young people at the hands of legal highs. It is these harms that are having the most devastating effect on young people and they are a much more telling story than can be told simply by usage statistics alone.
What is also clear from our research is that many young people view current drug laws and the information they are provided with by official sources as irrelevant and unreflective of real life.
Therefore we ask, 'what good can any Government interventions make if the barrier between young people and policy is so wide?' It is clear to us that changes simply have to be made. Central to this is a change in dialogue around legal highs and drug use more generally to allow for open and frank discussions about the effects of drugs and the harms they can cause to young people. Our experience at YMCA says this can often best be done through and by young people, themselves.
In Sunderland, our YMCA Mad 4 U project engages young people with experience of homelessness to speak to their peers about the issues they have been through. Currently, they present to young people and local officials about legal highs, and some of the young people presenting the facts are, themselves, former legal highs users who understand the harm these substances can cause. While it still remains important that specialist drug support agencies work with young people, we believe peer-to-peer schemes should also be promoted to help reach those young people who may be reticent to access formal services.
Finally, we believe the Government must also commit to undertaking a full review of the Psychoactive Substances Act, to examine its impact on both usage and harm that legal highs have on young people. While the decrease in overall usage we expect to see from this ban is ultimately a positive thing, the Act cannot be viewed a success unless it also succeeds in reducing the harms that young people are currently experiencing.
The increasing prevalence of legal highs use among young people represents a fundamental change in the UK drug scene, a change that the Government must realise cannot be solved by a ban alone. Our research shows that what is actually needed is a multi-faceted approach, encompassing impartial information, advice and specialist support alongside the soon-to-be-introduced legalities of a substance ban.