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Legal highs in the workplace

The effects of substance abuse in the workplace need to be recognised and acted upon.

Stereotypes come to mind when thinking about drug (or alcohol) addicts. People who abuse substances are typically perceived as deviants who don’t engage in society like the rest of us. They embody different values to mainstream society – they skirt the edges – they are the unemployed, victims of a bad upbringing, high school dropouts. They take their drugs in dark, dirty alleyways, rob innocent people, go on binges and engage in high risk behaviours.

The reality, however, is that the majority are just like you and me. They are parents, children, friends, workmates, sisters and brothers. They hold down jobs, have friends, go to social functions and enjoy their weekends. They manage their addiction.

Given an employer’s duty of care, and the importance of health & safety in the workplace, the effects of substance abuse need to be recognised and acted upon. Most workplace substance abuse policies will focus on traditional drugs – things like cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and cannabis. Generally, they will not address the hundreds of legal substances.

Getting your hands on so-called ‘legal-highs’ is as easy as a Google search. And, with their increasing popularity among young people, this means there is a good chance one of your employees is ‘dancing with Molly’ or ‘bubblin’ as you read this article.

Legal Highs, also known as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), are largely substances which mimic the effects of illegal drugs. They are not classified as being illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 due to minor alterations at a molecular level. Their effects, however, are often similar to the drugs from which they are derived and can be wide-ranging. During 2014, in England, Scotland and Wales, there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated.

In short, there has been an increase during recent years in the sale and use of so called "legal highs". Legal highs are often marketed as bath salts, incense or plant food. They contain synthetic, chemical compounds which imitate the effects of illegal drugs such as speed and cannabis. These drugs can have a range of effects on users and are generally used as stimulants, ‘downers’ or hallucinogens. They are marketed as legal and sold openly in shops and online.

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

In an attempt to control the use of psychoactive substances the UK Government announced new legislation in May 2015. The Psychoactive Substances Bill will prohibit and disrupt the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the UK.

This new legislation, which is currently progressing through Parliament, will place a blanket ban on all psychoactive (mind altering) substances, and will introduce a list of exemptions for those in everyday use, such as alcohol, coffee and medicines which are regulated elsewhere, as well as drugs already banned under Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Managing the use of drugs in the workplace

With a sensible approach focusing on the workforce rather than the substance, steps can be taken to reduce the impact of legal highs. Remember, alcohol and drugs policies don't have to be limited to what is and isn't allowed in the law. The use of alcohol is not illegal, yet most companies will ban or limit on alcohol consumption during working hours. Legal highs should be treated in the same way and built into alcohol and drugs policies.

Please note that, if your policy includes drug testing, this may be more challenging when trying to identify legal highs as the compounds they contain change regularly. It may be easier for the policy to focus on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the drugs themselves.

Policies should encourage users to seek help for their problems and you should educate staff and line managers on detecting the signs of misuse and what to be aware of.

Dealing with someone who has a problem with using legal highs should be approached in the same way as any other workplace drug or alcohol misuse.

In summary, given an employer’s duty of care, and the importance of health & safety in the workplace, the effects of legal highs need to be recognised and acted upon sooner rather than later.

The ACAS guide on Legal Highs can be found at

More information on the Psychoactive Substances Bill can be found at

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