Dealing with legal highs in the workplace

11 January 2016

Legal highs are largely substances which imitate the effects of illegal drugs when consumed, but are not actually illegal themselves. As with illegal drugs, they can have a range of effects on users and employers should consider their impact on their employees and workplaces.

Acas Key points

  • Many so called "legal highs" are already illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act but new substances - yet to be controlled - continue to emerge on the market.
  • The drugs imitate the effects on users of more traditional illegal substances.
  • During 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated.
  • There is currently legislation going through Parliament to ban the supply of these drugs based on their psychoactive effects.
  • Employers should consider legal highs when writing their drug and alcohol policies.

There has been an increase during recent years in the sale and use of so called "legal highs". Legal highs, or psychoactive drugs or New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, generally cannot be sold for human consumption and so are often marketed as bath salts, incense or plant food. They mostly contain synthetic, chemical compounds which imitate the effects of more traditional, illegal drugs such as speed and cannabis.

Often they contain ingredients which haven't been tested on humans and so the effects of human consumption are hard to predict. These drugs can have a range of effects on users and are generally used as stimulants, "downers" or hallucinogens.

As they are marketed as legal and sold openly in shops or online, many users may not fully realise the effects they might have. Many users are also unaware that, despite being legal, their use is probably banned in most workplaces under the organisation's drugs policy.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill

In an attempt to control the use of psychoactive substances the 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. The Bill is currently progressing through Parliament.

The new legislation places a blanket ban on all psychoactive (or mind altering) substances, and introduces 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.

Acas has produced useful guidance on what employers should consider and also offer a range of advice and support for businesses and individuals dealing with alcohol and drug issues in the workplace.