Walking through the streets of Digbeth it is easy to see the legacy of legal highs. Packets of Benzo Fury, Green Beans and Herbal Haze can be found littered on street corners and under the iconic bridges.
More recently outside the electronic clubs that inhabit Digbeth you will find small, conspicuous looking canisters, leftovers of nitrous oxide from the night before.
An under-reported problem
However it is not just young students that are attracted by the allures of legal highs. A homeless charity in Digbeth, surrounded by the alternative culture that the area is known for, is becoming increasingly concerned about the use of legal highs amongst the homeless population.
David Coombes, Alcohol Recovery Worker at Sifa Fireside said:
We’re seeing legal highs as a problem more and more. Our clients tend to use the synthetic cannabinoids, that’s where we are seeing a lot of problems with their breathing. We’ve had quite a few clients who just drop.
Many homeless people have substance abuse problems. Common drugs which are abused include alcohol and cannabis but the charity is seeing more come into contact with legal highs.
A safer alternative?
Darren (not his real name), is homeless and has swapped illegal drugs for legal highs. He is currently on life license and so if he is caught in possession of cannabis he will go straight to prison.
Before legal highs, he was trapped in a vicious cycle of buying cannabis, getting caught and then being fined.
My criminal record has loads of convictions for cannabis. I would get arrested for possession and taken to court where I was fined and then get in to trouble because I would have to find the money.
Now because there is legal stuff I can buy that and when the police pull me over they cannot arrest me. And because I can get legal drugs now the police can’t take it off me.
That’s one of the main reasons I smoke the legal weed.
Social justice implications
It is clear that there are huge benefits of legal highs over illegal drugs. Reasons ranged from not having to meet street dealers where there are safety risks, to the lower price of synthetic cannabinoids and the impact that this has on their finances.
With legal highs you aren’t making any trouble and aren’t committing any crime.
Before when I was on the illegal drugs I would have to go robbing everybody because of the price, now the legal stuff is half the price.
It’s given me peace of mind, that I can go somewhere to pick up a legal smoke and use it for my pain.
With serious substance abuse problems, the cost of keeping up a habit can be huge. Darren described how he used to spend up to £200 pound a week on cannabis alone. The only way he could afford the habit was to commit crime.
However amongst the clients there was a lack of awareness about the potential dangers of these largely untested products. Several of the shops in the Digbeth area even denied the fact that they sold legal highs. When pressed they said they only sold research chemicals.
The main impact of the cannabanoids is on their breathing and the psychological impact, especially if they have a predisposition.
A classic presentation would be the colour draining from their face.
We’ve had hardened drug takers who have taken drugs for years who have dropped when taking legal highs.
We don’t know what’s in them really.
David described the difficulty that the charity faces due to the uncertainty of their legal classification.
It’s a difficult problem because there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to which drugs are illegal because they have categorised a number of them. Because the names keep changing you can never say definitively which drugs are illegal unless we search every one. We ask clients to hand in alcohol and also legal highs when they come in and give them back when they leave.
In the face of uncertainty, the only weapon that the charity possesses is awareness. Making people aware of the very real risks of these substances is a priority.
Adding to the danger of these substances is the environment that many homeless people find themselves in.
They are often in poor health and have alcohol issues. Many live in squats and are isolated from the rest of society. Taking drugs can alleviate their pain and legal highs can give them peace of mind that illegal drugs cannot.
A growing problem
What would be the effect of a ban on legal highs?
I would go straight back on illegal drugs and would waste my life in prison.
The Association of Chief Police Officers have issued guidelines to police forces emphasising a justifiable and proportionate response to dealing with people found in possession of khat.
As of the 24 June khat was classified as a class C drug, making it illegal to possess or distribute.
Khat is a herbal stimulant consisting of the leaves and shoots of the shrub Catha edulis. It is imported into the UK from Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. It is traditionally used by people from East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, but especially in Somalia, Somaliland, Ethiopia and Yemen.
The government has introduced a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) as a further option for dealing with khat possession offences. The PND and khat warnings will be used before resorting to a summons or an arrest.
Officers have also been advised to take in to consideration the fact that khat has not historically been controlled and was part of the culture for communities in the Horn of Africa.
The effect of khat on users is similar to that of amphetamines (e.g. speed). Effects include:
- Feeling more alert, happy and talkative.
- Suppression of appetite
- Liver toxicity from excessive use
- Sleep disruption
National Policing Lead for Drugs, Chief Constable Andy Bliss, said:
“Enforcement of khat ban will be firm but proportionate. Officers will take into account the nature of the offence and its severity, using a tiered approach towards offences relating to possession for personal use.
“The police are working with Home Office colleagues, healthcare providers and community leaders to ensure that people in localities where khat use is prevalent are aware of the change in law and the police approach, as well as the support available to them.”
Vice covered the khat trail, looking at khat warehouses and cafes in London with the video below.