The term ‘legal high’ can be a confusing one, because some of the time what it’s describing isn’t actually legal. Basically a ‘legal high’ is a substance designed to imitate the effects of illicit drugs like ecstasy, amphetamines or cannabis. While they are often marketed as less harmful to you than other drugs, this is not always the case.

There are three main groups of ‘legal highs’.


Up until 2009, most ‘herbal highs’ sold in Australia were basically made up of two chemicals: BZP and TFMPP. They were designed to mimic the effects of amphetamines (like speed or ice), MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD (acid). However, as BZP is now a banned substance, the most common ingredients found in the new herbal highs are caffeine, citrus aurantium and geranium extract. They normally come in a pill or liquid form, which is generally swallowed.

The effects of the newer BZP-free herbal highs are said to be less intense than the original version, however they can affect everyone differently. They can increase your heartbeat, make you feel more alert, happier and have a burst of energy. They can also act as a hallucinogenic, meaning you might see or hear things that aren’t there. Herbal highs can also make it difficult for you to get to sleep and leave you feeling stressed and strung out. Headaches are also pretty common, especially when the drugs are mixed with alcohol.


Synthetic cannabinoids are chemicals that imitate the effect of THC, which is the active ingredient in cannabis. Often marketed under the brand names ‘Kronic’, ‘Spice’ and ‘K2’, synthetic cannabis products look like dried herbs. They’re usually smoked or sometimes drunk in tea.

The effects of synthetic cannabinoids can vary from person to person. It’s said that the feeling is similar to be being stoned, except the effects take longer to kick in and don’t last as long. You might feel relaxed, euphoric, disconnected from your thoughts and body (this is called a ‘dissociative state’), have a dry mouth or irregular heartbeat. You might see or hear things that aren’t there, feel paranoid, dizzy, agitated or like your thoughts are racing.


Drug analogues are substances that are chemically similar to other drugs. They’re often labelled under misleading names such as ‘research chemicals’, ‘plant food’ and bath salts’. The most commonly found component in these types of drugs is mephedrone. Drug analogues generally come in a white powder, crystal form or capsules, and are smoked, swallowed, injected or snorted.

The effects of drug analogues will vary from person to person, and depend on what is actually in them. You might have an increased heart rate, feel energetic, talkative, rushing and euphoric. Some other common effects include sleep deprivation, feeling agitated, jaw clenching and teeth grinding, memory loss and paranoia. 


Most ‘legal highs’ have only recently emerged as drugs for recreational use, which means very little is known about their long-term effects.

Most ‘legal highs’ have only recently emerged as drugs for recreational use, which means very little is known about their long-term effects. In the short-term they can lead to drug dependence, bad interactions with current medications, mood swings, anxiety, social and relationship problems and a lack of energy and motivation. In the case of synthetic cannabis, some users have reported more problems with ‘psychosis like’ symptoms compared with whole plant cannabis. Any herbal mix marketed as a cannabis substitute is harmful to the lungs when smoked, even if the mix is described as ‘soothing’. Seeking independent advice from a GP or youth drug and alcohol worker is advised before taking any legal highs.


Like most drugs, using ‘legal highs’ for a prolonged amount of time can lead to a dependence on the drug, and taking it can become the most important thing in your life. If you’re using regularly, you might find that you need to take a larger amount of the drug to get the same effect, which can intensify the risks. 


Since a lot of the chemicals used in ‘legal highs’ are marketed for legitimate purposes, these types of drugs can often fall into a legal grey area. Each state in Australia has different laws governing synthetics and herbal highs. Over the years, increasing concerns about their safety have led to a number of the substances being banned. For example, in 2011, eight synthetic cannabinoids became illegal in Australia.

For legal advice specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.


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