Legal high hospital admissions rise

Hundreds of people have been admitted to hospital across Scotland after taking so-called legal highs in the past five years, according to new figures.

The problem, highlighted in a Scottish Parliament debate last week, may be getting worse, with admissions more than doubling over the last two full years.

Only six health boards could supply numbers, suggesting that the real total could be much higher than the 323 recorded by the NHS since 2009.

Substances sold as legal highs are produced to have similar effects to drugs such as ecstasy, but they fall outside the UK Government’s misuse of drugs laws.

Last year 139 admissions were recorded, compared with 61 in 2012. The total stayed below that number in the three previous years.

Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw, who obtained the figures from the Scottish Government, said: “This is clearly a problem that is getting worse, and we need a plan of action to tackle it.

“Even from these statistics it’s obvious the issue is becoming more prevalent.

“But without all the health boards collecting the relevant data, we will never know the true extent of it.

“Scotland already faces a major headache with alcohol and drugs, and we can’t afford to let the problem of legal highs spiral out of control.

“It’s important both the Scottish Government and the NHS are ahead of the game on this matter, to ensure these admissions figures can come down in future.”

A summit will be held to discuss ways to crack down on Scotland’s sale and supply of legal highs, Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham told MSPs last week.

Legal highs are often labelled and sold as plant food or bath salts, or marked as not fit for human consumption, as a tactic to avoid the law, the minister said.

They are easily accessible online, and, according to research, have also been found to be sold at petrol stations, newsagents and takeaways.

The UN and the EU recorded 73 new drugs in 2012, with 693 online shops selling legal highs across Europe in the same year.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “New psychoactive substances (NPS) can be extremely dangerous and it is impossible to know the contents and the dangers a drug may pose, whether it is legal or not. Recording the prevalence and use of NPS and the associated health harms is a challenge, which is being experienced internationally.

“Last week, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs announced that the Scottish Government would be commissioning research on NPS in Scotland to understand more about the scale of this issue and who is using these substances and why.

“This builds on the work that we have been taking forward, since the event the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs convened last year, to improve national data collection tools to provide more information on the use of these substances – for example, updating our surveys, which collect information on drug use reported by young people and adults, as well as reporting for the first time, information on drug deaths where NPS were found in the body.

“National data is also supplemented by third sector organisations, such as support services and music festivals, who observe drug trends.”