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THE LOWS OF LEGAL HIGHS

Due to the stimulant abilities of legal drugs and the belief that personal safety is ensured, one in five New Zealanders have tried them. In many cases legal highs are short term and controllable. But, as with any substance, dangerous and harmful effects are not off the cards. Nicole Canning talks to two Massey students who experienced the adverse effects first hand, and asks: just how safe are legal drugs?


Maddie’s* Story

I never knew that a substance sold over the counter at local dairies could hold the power to unlock the darkest corners of my mind causing me to question the reality of the life I live. As I sat and watched four mates smoke legals from their home-made buckey they call “Kiwi ingenuity”, I anticipated a night of good vibes. Having tried drugs in the past I assumed the combination with the bottle of wine I had consumed was going to be harmless. I assumed wrong. Things in the room began to move, my friends’ voices muddled into one, and I lost the connection between my feet and the floor. As I clung to the walls in an effort to stay upright, I was overwhelmed by the fear of losing control. Holding on to the edge of a short fence is the last memory I have before I fell unconscious into the dark confines of my own mind.

Corrupted by the legal high illusion, my mind trapped me in a place with no beginning, end, or means of escape. Other than the winding pain I felt as I imagined my body tumbling, turning, and falling, I was paralysed and have no recollection of being carried inside and placed on the couch where I later found myself. I dropped into a state of limbo where I lost complete recollection of reality. I was nothing more than a mind occupied by a loud continuous, “BAH BAH BAH,” and bizarre patterns of blue, pink, purple, and yellow that merged and moved in and out of one another. The mood became so dark that I was convinced I had died and limbo was my afterlife.

As the drug wore off and my brain began to function, my name was repeatedly yelled inside my mind, forcing me to make a connection to the life I forgot existed. I then surfaced back to reality; although it hardly felt like reality at all. I sat on the couch wrapped in a curtain convinced that nothing was real, and struggling to recognise the faces in the room.  “YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHERE I’VE JUST BEEN!!” I yelled, overwhelmed with panic and trying to come to grips with where my mind had just taken me. I then vomited my entire stomach into a well-lined beer box, began to drink water, and demand the physical touch of others. I couldn’t feel my own hands stroking my hair but I could feel the hand of someone else holding onto mine and this was incredibly reassuring. I repeatedly asked questions about the time, and about my name, occupation, and preceding events because I was so unsure of which life, this one or the one in my mind, was real. But every response sounded like a riddle and I wondered if time was even passing, or if I was just reliving the same moment over and over.

Waking up the next day was like being told your dream was real, and it wasn’t until the following evening before my body stopped having tingles and my mind could accept what had happened. Legal highs are psychoactive drugs which mean their primary role is to tap into the central nervous system to alter the mind and mental processes. Since 2008 when legal highs became BZP-free, the most common ingredients include caffeine, citrus aurantium, and geranamine. Although the strength of these drugs is supposed to be less intense, they do still tend to imitate the likes of Ecstasy and LSD, and range from legal to illegal, caffeine to methamphetamine. They produce temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness, and behaviour, and can provide stimulant, euphoric, and hallucinogenic effects.

In a study conducted on legal party pills, users outlined these three effects as a positive association to the drug and the main reason for consumption. In addition, they commented on the key negative effects, most of which were physical or centred on a bad ‘comedown’ period. They include vomiting, tiredness, and dehydration, having a sore and shaky body, and being tense, angry, withdrawn, and paranoid. It was only the more drug-experienced participants in the study who truly recounted unpredictable effects.The study also examined user knowledge regarding the safety of legal highs. Like Maddie, the majority of participants admitted to taking legal drugs with alcohol despite recommendations not to. They believed the ‘herbal’ title gave connotations of a less harmful and chemically enriched product. Lastly, they considered legal drugs to be relatively safe due to their legal status, widespread availability, and a belief that they would not be available if their safety had not been proven.

Despite this, legal drugs in New Zealand have not yet had their safety proven. The Government is currently processing legislation to have legal drugs clinically tested on humans and to impose penalties for any drugs sold that have not undergone the testing process. The testing will look for toxicity levels, adverse effects, and mental health impacts. It may also help to explain what happened to Alex when he was completely sober and took the legal drug AK-47.

Alex’s* Story

I had my first hit at 9pm and it started as a great buzz. My head rushed and it felt like the world was moving around me. Having done other legals before, I thought I knew what would happen. By 9:15pm I was really high, and dancing around pretending I was Sugar-Ray, the boxer. As soon as I felt everyone knew I was high it creeped me out and I began imagining myself as the guy from the drinking adverts being out in the rain. I even felt the rain hit my skin, yet it was a perfectly clear night. After that I tried to sit on the couch and “get rid” of the high as it engulfed me. I felt as if my eyes froze for a minute of two while everything else continued around me. The music began to pound in my head and I screamed at my mates to turn it down. The high escalated and I blanked out, only the music got louder. Sleepless by Fume was playing – a fucking scary song to listen to when you’re high.

From there all I had were my thoughts, it felt like a couple of hours trapped in my head with Windows Media Visualizer. My thoughts got darker and I felt every sense erupt at once. I wanted to cry, pee, and scream out in pain, only I couldn’t.  At that point I thought, “This is it. This is the end of life; we just think for infinity, we just have to occupy ourselves FOREVER!” I am not a believer in life after death, but it really did make me think otherwise. I began to come right and think straight as soon as I woke, but it was the scariest night of my life.

Although it would be foolish to expect students to steer clear of legal drugs, it would not be foolish to insist that they follow dosage recommendations and adhere to the safety precautions. The mind is a powerful thing with an ability to transport people to unimaginable places. The most foolish mistake a student can make is to believe that even a harmless legal drug could not strip away all levels control and unlock the darkest corners of the brain that no one wants to visit.

Maddie’s* Story

I never knew that a substance sold over the counter at local dairies could hold the power to unlock the darkest corners of my mind causing me to question the reality of the life I live. As I sat and watched four mates smoke legals from their home-made buckey they call “Kiwi ingenuity”, I anticipated a night of good vibes. Having tried drugs in the past I assumed the combination with the bottle of wine I had consumed was going to be harmless. I assumed wrong. Things in the room began to move, my friends’ voices muddled into one, and I lost the connection between my feet and the floor. As I clung to the walls in an effort to stay upright, I was overwhelmed by the fear of losing control. Holding on to the edge of a short fence is the last memory I have before I fell unconscious into the dark confines of my own mind.

Corrupted by the legal high illusion, my mind trapped me in a place with no beginning, end, or means of escape. Other than the winding pain I felt as I imagined my body tumbling, turning, and falling, I was paralysed and have no recollection of being carried inside and placed on the couch where I later found myself. I dropped into a state of limbo where I lost complete recollection of reality. I was nothing more than a mind occupied by a loud continuous, “BAH BAH BAH,” and bizarre patterns of blue, pink, purple, and yellow that merged and moved in and out of one another. The mood became so dark that I was convinced I had died and limbo was my afterlife.

As the drug wore off and my brain began to function, my name was repeatedly yelled inside my mind, forcing me to make a connection to the life I forgot existed. I then surfaced back to reality; although it hardly felt like reality at all. I sat on the couch wrapped in a curtain convinced that nothing was real, and struggling to recognise the faces in the room. “YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHERE I’VE JUST BEEN!!” I yelled, overwhelmed with panic and trying to come to grips with where my mind had just taken me. I then vomited my entire stomach into a well-lined beer box, began to drink water, and demand the physical touch of others. I couldn’t feel my own hands stroking my hair but I could feel the hand of someone else holding onto mine and this was incredibly reassuring. I repeatedly asked questions about the time, and about my name, occupation, and preceding events because I was so unsure of which life, this one or the one in my mind, was real. But every response sounded like a riddle and I wondered if time was even passing, or if I was just reliving the same moment over and over.

Waking up the next day was like being told your dream was real, and it wasn’t until the following evening before my body stopped having tingles and my mind could accept what had happened. Legal highs are psychoactive drugs which mean their primary role is to tap into the central nervous system to alter the mind and mental processes. Since 2008 when legal highs became BZP-free, the most common ingredients include caffeine, citrus aurantium, and geranamine. Although the strength of these drugs is supposed to be less intense, they do still tend to imitate the likes of Ecstasy and LSD, and range from legal to illegal, caffeine to methamphetamine. They produce temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness, and behaviour, and can provide stimulant, euphoric, and hallucinogenic effects.

In a study conducted on legal party pills, users outlined these three effects as a positive association to the drug and the main reason for consumption. In addition, they commented on the key negative effects, most of which were physical or centred on a bad ‘comedown’ period. They include vomiting, tiredness, and dehydration, having a sore and shaky body, and being tense, angry, withdrawn, and paranoid. It was only the more drug-experienced participants in the study who truly recounted unpredictable effects.The study also examined user knowledge regarding the safety of legal highs. Like Maddie, the majority of participants admitted to taking legal drugs with alcohol despite recommendations not to. They believed the ‘herbal’ title gave connotations of a less harmful and chemically enriched product. Lastly, they considered legal drugs to be relatively safe due to their legal status, widespread availability, and a belief that they would not be available if their safety had not been proven.

Despite this, legal drugs in New Zealand have not yet had their safety proven. The Government is currently processing legislation to have legal drugs clinically tested on humans and to impose penalties for any drugs sold that have not undergone the testing process. The testing will look for toxicity levels, adverse effects, and mental health impacts. It may also help to explain what happened to Alex when he was completely sober and took the legal drug AK-47.

Alex’s* Story

I had my first hit at 9pm and it started as a great buzz. My head rushed and it felt like the world was moving around me. Having done other legals before, I thought I knew what would happen. By 9:15pm I was really high, and dancing around pretending I was Sugar-Ray, the boxer. As soon as I felt everyone knew I was high it creeped me out and I began imagining myself as the guy from the drinking adverts being out in the rain. I even felt the rain hit my skin, yet it was a perfectly clear night. After that I tried to sit on the couch and “get rid” of the high as it engulfed me. I felt as if my eyes froze for a minute of two while everything else continued around me. The music began to pound in my head and I screamed at my mates to turn it down. The high escalated and I blanked out, only the music got louder. Sleepless by Fume was playing – a fucking scary song to listen to when you’re high.

From there all I had were my thoughts, it felt like a couple of hours trapped in my head with Windows Media Visualizer. My thoughts got darker and I felt every sense erupt at once. I wanted to cry, pee, and scream out in pain, only I couldn’t. At that point I thought, “This is it. This is the end of life; we just think for infinity, we just have to occupy ourselves FOREVER!” I am not a believer in life after death, but it really did make me think otherwise. I began to come right and think straight as soon as I woke, but it was the scariest night of my life.

Although it would be foolish to expect students to steer clear of legal drugs, it would not be foolish to insist that they follow dosage recommendations and adhere to the safety precautions. The mind is a powerful thing with an ability to transport people to unimaginable places. The most foolish mistake a student can make is to believe that even a harmless legal drug could not strip away all levels control and unlock the darkest corners of the brain that no one wants to visit.

*Names have been changed.

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