Once dominated by the wafting smell of burning marijuana, festivals have become populated by so-called ‘legal highs’ that are often causing more problems than their illegal relatives.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), legal highs are a broad category of unregulated psychoactive compounds or products that contain legal alternatives to controlled drugs. Herbal highs, party drugs and research chemicals make up the wide range of synthetic and plant-derived substances that crowd the shelves of smart shops, head shops and online stores.

These products are easier to get than controlled drugs, they’re usually better value for money and – most dangerously – they’re thought of as safer than controlled drugs.

“Legal highs are dangerous, but they’re not illegal,” Melvin Benn at Festival Republic said. “The amount of deaths arising from legal highs has grown substantially over the years. They’ve certainly become much more of a feature in society and, from a duty of care point of view, we have to try and counter that.”

Why are they so popular at festivals? Festivalgoers want a euphoric weekend filled with thumping music, bright lights and out-of-body experiences. The effects advertised on the tin say legal high users will experience:

○ Euphoria
○ Escapism
○ Connection with the music
○ Elevated mood
○ Relaxation
○ Feelings of stimulation and energy
○ Dissociation

In reality, legal highs can cause palpitations, chest pain, breathing problems, headaches, nausea, renal issues, tachycardia, peripheral vasoconstriction, cravings, agitations, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, paranoia and a crisis mental state.

If that sounds eerily similar to the side effects of cocaine, MDMA, ecstasy, methamphetamines, ketamine and other illegal drugs…that’s because the only difference between illegal and legal highs is often the name.

Festivals are combatting this rise with dedicated welfare crews whose sole job is to make sure that festivalgoers spiralling out of control on drugs come out of the experience safe.

Contrary to popular opinion, this does not involve sniffer dogs, which – in addition to giving a false positive 74% of the time – often causes users to pre-load or swallow drugs and fails to detect many drugs.

Welfare crews instead provide water points, chill-out zones, non-medical crisis intervention, and medical and security staff trained in advanced drug prevention and care. Festivals offer signage around the site, social media campaigns against drug use and drug warnings and harm reduction messages on websites.

Feedback about the welfare crews from users has been positive. “At about 4 pm on the Saturday at the festival, I was having a good drink and a good time,” said one anonymous festivalgoer. “I took some drugs that I have never indulged in before. Going into the evening I began to feel unstable and not myself, and as I was coming out of my tent, I fell and banged my head and started to feel sick.

“I was then rescued by the wonderful and friendly staff at the chill-out zone. They made me feel comfortable and warm and ensured I came back to proper health before I went back to my tent.”

Another said: “I tried ecstasy for the first time and mixed it with caffeine and alcohol. I had a horrible time and started to feel really ill and panicky. I had lost my friends and didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was going to die.

“I stayed at the welfare tent and the crew there really helped me. They stayed with me while I went through the worst experience of my life and stayed with me until I was taken to the hospital. I am so appreciative for them being there as I couldn’t have dealt with it alone.”

Spreading the word on the less-than-ideal side effects of these highs is the best way to combat drug use at festivals. Whether or not head banging teenagers choose energy drinks over a little magic pill, festivals’ welfare crews will be there to help them out.  

Just say no: Users on legal highs

“It’s a bit mental – the synthetic cannabinoids are really strong. On one occasion, I smoked a big pipe and I felt really anxious, close to a panic attack. It was very intense, I didn’t feel in touch with what was going on around me. I didn’t know what the f**k was going on – it was like smoking a joint multiplied by ten and dipped in acid.”

“I thought it was going to be like coke – I didn’t realise it was going to be trippy. I was looking for a high and I got a bloody high all right.”

“It was like being inside a purple washing machine for 10 hours on high spin.”


This was first published in the May issue of Access All Areas. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson

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