Following the banning of legal highs in the UK in May 2016, Panorama spent six months in Newcastle to see whether the new law is working.
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Legal highs - they're the drugs that have been causing havoc
for nearly a decade.
People thought because they were so-called legal highs as opposed
to the dangerous substances that they were,
that it was legitimate to take them.
Linked to 204 deaths in 2015...
It was only, like, a 10% chance of survival.
They thought she'd be brain damaged.
..they've devastated life after life.
I started dabbling in it and then I ended up hooked on it
and then I lost everything.
Death comes to mind when I hear the word "legal high".
Britain has the largest legal-highs market of any country in Europe.
In May last year, the government passed a law banning them,
hoping to stop a problem that was getting out of control.
Jack's been identified via CCTV
and suspected of dealing and selling new psychoactive substances.
But is it working?
We spent six months in one of the UK's worst-hit areas to find out.
'I'm in Newcastle, where they've had a real problem
'with what used to be known as legal highs.
'The North East of England has the highest death rate from drugs
'in the country.'
Tell me what you know about legal highs.
From powders to pills to stuff you smoke,
there are 640 varieties of legal highs globally.
They're officially known as novel psychoactive substances,
and mimic the effects of traditional illegal drugs,
such as cocaine and cannabis.
They can be stronger, a lot cheaper, and sometimes more dangerous.
So, this is Northumberland High Street, which is obviously
our main shopping area.
What we began to get is complaints from shop owners and businesses,
saying that they were being affected
by the state that people were in,
who were under the influence of lethal highs.
Early last year, the city experienced the worst problems
with novel psychoactive substances - now known as NPS.
Individuals were seen being sick in the streets, haemorrhaging,
actually having blood from their ears and nose,
they were having seizures and fits.
To try to deal with the problems of people collapsing
in the city centre, the police, council and ambulance service
in Newcastle got together to form a taskforce.
At the height of the NPS use, there was large congregations,
some of them really vulnerable young people,
who would hang around this area into the late evenings,
also dealing in NPS products in this area.
There used to be a lot of legal-high users that used to
bother the old people, the children, myself.
What are your views on legal highs?
What, mine? Don't take them because they're bad for you.
They kill you.
And have you seen people under the influence of legal highs?
-Aye, I have.
-What have they been like?
They've been lying on the floor, or been lying on the benches.
You know what I mean?
-They just lie there and they don't talk or nowt to you.
And you just think, "What's wrong with you?"
They'd come over to you with a really drowsy look on their face
and you couldn't understand a word they were saying.
Nationally, until May last year, you could buy legal highs
across the counter in some shops and newsagents.
But before that, Newcastle was already closing these shops down.
I remember smoking it
I remember having three draws of it,
and I remember waking up four hours later on my bed
and then thinking, "Yeah, that's good.
"That makes me forget about all my problems."
Paul is 30 and is in and out of homelessness.
He's been addicted to legal highs for several years.
I was getting recognition and reward points for the top salesman.
I had a nice house,
the most beautiful girlfriend ever.
I had a scooter.
I had everything I could have ever hoped for.
12 months later,
I've lost everything.
Is it like heroin, mate, where all your money goes on that?
30, 40, 50, 60, 70...
380 quid's worth.
Would all your money get spent on that?
Not all of it,
but a high portion of it, yeah.
So there's not much difference between that
and heroin addiction, really, is there?
Other than I would be more desperate for that
-than I would be for heroin.
But the difference is, I wouldn't set about somebody for heroin.
I would set about them for that.
You're not a violent person, are you?
-You know that.
-But when I'm going through withdrawal
and I'm not myself,
and my brain's not right because of the psychological effects
of legal high...
This was where I used to stay when I was homeless,
normally off to the side, over here, in bushes,
in a little tent somewhere.
At 18, Chantelle became homeless and started taking legal highs.
They blocked everything out.
They just made you feel like you had four walls around you
and forget about your surroundings, where you were,
forget about everything that I was going through.
I ended up doing shopliftings and doing crime and that
and stuff I'd never, ever even dreamt of doing before,
and then that's when I realised I didn't want it no more.
But once hooked, it's a hard habit to break.
The Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced in May 2016.
It banned the manufacture, supply and sale of legal highs
across the UK.
What the act did was got rid of the semi-legitimate
sales of these items,
both on the internet and on head shops,
so they're no longer freely available in that way.
Armed with these new powers, Northumbria Police is targeting
dealers selling what they've nicknamed "lethal highs"
on the streets of Newcastle.
Over the next two days, we're looking to arrest and disrupt
those concerned in the supply of NPS
under the Psychoactive Substances of Act 2016.
So this is the address here.
If you look, there's a side door,
and that's where we're looking to hit.
And basically we're going to be looking for any evidence
that relates to the sale of NPS, so any mobile phones,
any laptops with any correspondence on,
any packets of NPS, and so on.
I don't need to remind you of the dangers of lethal highs.
You've seen yourselves the immediate effects on users,
the effects on our city centre and the community we serve.
We're going with two vans this morning.
Obviously, we've got a warrant to enter the premises.
And it's all about getting to the premises quite early
and securing the premises.
-We've a warrant to search these premises, OK?
The police found the man they were looking for and took him
to a cell at Forth Banks police station to be questioned later.
The next day, the police intercepted a parcel
of legal highs at the house.
What we've got here
are approximately 120 bags of lethal highs
which were delivered, funnily enough, to the property
this morning whilst officers were still there.
Street value of those is probably, I don't know, maybe £1,500,
something like that. They pay approx £3, £4 a bag,
and they sell them on for about £12 to £15,
so about three times the money paid out.
A lot of them are imported from China,
but these have come from within the UK.
Fingers crossed, we'll be able to locate the source of this
and then, as I say, it just moves up the chain and keeps going
until we can find the one at the top.
How do people get it? Who are they getting it from?
How much does it cost you now?
With the shops closed down, deals are now taking place
on the streets.
You can clearly see him,
he's got about six or seven lethal high sachets in his hand,
and they're all just queuing up with their coins in their hand.
Sergeant Percival and his team are tracking a street dealer.
This is the guy we're going to do the warrant on?
It's him, yeah.
Clearly dealing, like?
The suspect, Jack Lockhart,
is seen dealing around the city centre.
The team heads out to try and arrest him.
On arrest, police found cash, legal highs and several mobile phones.
Mr Lockhart is charged with six counts of supplying,
and under the new Act could face up to seven years in prison.
His will be the first novel psychoactive substances case
Northumbria Police take to court,
and one of the first such cases nationally.
Paul's visiting Mick, a drugs support worker at Lifeline,
an organisation that aims to help people with drug addictions,
and a partner in the taskforce.
Getting better, getting there. Day by day.
As the types of legal highs are always changing,
Paul gives Mick his empty packets, so he can keep up to date
with the most popular ones.
And if I just show you the back of the packets, it says,
"Harmful if swallowed, causes serious eye irritation,
"skin irritation or respiratory irritation."
It actually warns you to call your poison clinic.
Death comes to mind when I hear the word "legal high",
because pretty much all my friends have died
through smoking legal high.
At the peak of legal high use in Newcastle,
there were hundreds of calls to the ambulance service,
as people collapsed in the city centre.
Since the Act, the numbers have fallen
but some faces are very familiar.
It's only early evening
and we're already aware of two patients around the department
who are here with legal highs.
You just get a feel here for how regularly we see people.
So this is just the attendances in the last few months,
and all, we know, related to legal highs.
This patient has been back to A&E time and time again.
The paramedics tend to bring in the packet if they find it.
In effect, it doesn't help us a lot,
because we still don't know what the chemicals are,
but we can spot trends.
Currently, this one seems to be more sedative,
in that we're not experiencing any problems, you know,
he's quite settled, he's quite sedated, quite sleepy.
People who use synthetic cannabis like Spice are 30 times more likely
to go to A&E than cannabis users.
But in terms of deaths, heroin kills far more people.
Again, just a legal high.
Looks like someone who isn't known to us.
We're going to get a feel for what's going on, see how he is.
I think there's no great concerns,
apart from the fact that he's slightly sleepy.
So plans. What are we going to do with him?
Give him a bit of fluid. Blood pressure is tiny bit on the low side
-and then just keep an eye on him.
With NPS, it's almost a revolving door, that we see people,
we attempt to impact, but we really get very little opportunity.
My personal experience is that, really, once they're recovering,
they just want to be out the door.
When I go into A&E, they do all the standard tests,
but they just put me on a drip
and they just know.
It's a case of, "We'll flush you out and send you out
"and see you tomorrow or next week
"when you come back in in an ambulance."
Over half a million young people aged 15 to 24 have experimented
with these types of drugs at least once.
Deaths linked to legal highs have tripled in recent years,
and it's mostly young people who are being affected.
'I've come to meet Sharon, who lives in Morecambe.
'The North West has the second-highest rate
'of drugs-related deaths in the country.'
What do you do for fun around here?
There's nothing really to do round here.
I don't know, it's quite deserted, and nothing really much to do.
'A year ago, at the age of 15,
'Sharon had a nightmare of an experience with legal highs.'
How would you describe yourself?
Well, now I'm a better person.
I'm more... Well, wiser and more grown-up.
I used to be a bit of an idiot.
I'd take drugs and think it were funny.
What type of drugs?
Cannabis the most.
I wouldn't want to do more than that, but legal highs came out
and then everyone else started taking them.
She went to a party and that night was given a joint.
After I smoked a lot of it, I started to feel not like myself
and it just sent me loopy.
It's like someone's squeezing you.
It's like a suffocating sensation, but you can breathe fine,
but you're panicking because you don't know exactly
what's going on in your body.
Sharon came home the following evening earlier than expected.
For her mum, Cheryl, it's something she'll never forget.
Told her to be in for ten o'clock, but she was in at half past eight.
Gone straight up to her bed, which isn't like Sharon,
but I thought, "Oh, she must be knackered from the night before.
"I wonder what she's done."
I was running home.
I can't remember why I was running, but I can feel my face
going like that...and my head started going into the pavement.
The pavement felt like it was that far away from my head
and I was sinking, like that,
and I was running and I am going down and down, like that.
I ran up the stairs, because I knew if my mum saw me like this,
I was going to get absolutely shouted at and get into trouble,
so I ran upstairs and went to bed.
What did you feel like when you were lying in bed?
Literally, I could feel my heart slowing down.
I could feel it all through my body,
my heartbeat's going, "Boomph, boomph, boomph, boomph."
I've gone and sat downstairs with my mum and dad
and an almighty thud hit.
Luckily for me, she'd fallen out of bed.
If she had not fallen out of bed, she would be dead.
What did you think was happening at that point?
At first, I thought she were messing about, until I saw her face
and I was screaming, "What have you taken?"
And she couldn't even slur two words together.
We laid her out on the floor while we waited
for the doctors to arrive, and the ambulance,
and she just stopped, she stopped moving, stopped breathing.
-What did you think was happening?
-I thought she was dead.
My little baby was sat there dying.
There was blood coming out of her mouth.
She just stopped.
Sharon was rushed to hospital with her mum,
where doctors battled to save her life.
All I could hear was the machine where they restart your heart going,
because her heart had stopped.
They got it going again and then it stopped again.
They fought for her that night.
No mum should have to see what I saw that night.
What did the doctors say when she got to the hospital?
It was only like a 10% chance of survival.
They thought she'd be brain-damaged.
They told me to get the family and prepare for the worst,
because they didn't think she'd pull through.
Cheryl was eventually able to see her daughter just before
she was taken up to intensive care.
I went round the corner to see her,
hooked up to all these different things,
and they informed me that this tube in her mouth
was breathing for her, cos she couldn't breathe.
She wasn't there, it wasn't my baby.
Why are you so upset now, looking at this?
Because I can't believe, just looking at that...
I didn't see that side of the story.
And it's over something so stupid and so little.
Does it make you think about your family and how
they had to deal with it?
I just feel really guilty,
because...the one thing I smoked,
I caused so much harm to myself and to my family.
How long was she in a coma for?
Two days, three hours and 45 minutes.
Can you remember waking up in hospital?
I remember having all these tubes coming out my mouth
and things all over my arms,
and all my family stood around me crying.
I was like, "What's going on here?"
What did you want to say to her here?
As bad as it is, I wanted to hit her.
I wanted to smack her for being so stupid.
And then your heart breaks, because that's your baby.
And I'd have to go home and tell her little brother
that big sister wasn't coming home any more.
In Newcastle, people who work with addicts can often be confused
about how best to help them, because of the sheer range of legal highs.
We've gone back to very simple messages saying,
actually, as a workforce, you know the 90% of this,
you know how to respond to drugs and their effects,
so we need to do that in the same way.
You don't necessarily need to know the compounds,
the chemistry make-up, you just need to understand
what the substance is mimicking and then treat.
And give harm reduction advice accordingly.
For users of these drugs, it's not just the effect
that's being mimicked, it's also the withdrawal.
Forget about heroin, forget about Trainspotting,
it doesn't have a patch on it.
This was the most ruthless detox
I have ever been through in my life.
You're sick, your belly... twists up like a knot.
And you're like...
It goes in, so you're cramped over like that.
And you're retching, you're retching, but you can't eat.
If you want to be in a position
where you've got...
..fluids coming out your nose,
fluids...coming out of every orifice
in your body you could think of.
It's like bile that you're bringing up, or phlegm.
And then you've constantly... You've got diarrhoea,
constantly on the toilet.
Or the cold sweats.
And I mean, you drip, you can see the drips,
sweat dripping off you.
You sweat like a waterfall.
You get hot and cold flushes, you're fatigued.
It just goes on and on and on
as if it's never going to end.
It takes a good few weeks to get off them,
it doesn't take a couple of days. Like, people say...
Like, the first three days, yeah, fair enough.
But it's still hard after that. It is.
Because you're always going to know you can get it.
So, in your mind, you've got say, "No, I don't want that."
You've got to be focused on it. You've got to be a strong person.
It's September, and the police have some news about their NPS arrests.
In particular, the street dealer Jack Lockhart.
The updates we have so far is one male has been charged
and is due in court.
In the case involving the raid we saw earlier,
the police are still waiting for the results to come back
from the Home Office lab.
The seized drugs were sent for testing, which has delayed the case.
Without being able to prove the drugs are psychoactive,
they can't move forward.
That's taken some time, because this is quite new,
so the government and the Home Office are currently
going through the process of testing all the lethal highs that have been
seized to say whether or not they're psychoactive as such.
Our thoughts are that they will be,
but we have to have that confirmed prior to any sort of charge.
Determining whether something is psychoactive is a two-stage process.
First of all, the substance has to be identified
through the normal forensic providers
and then the second stage is for scientists to say it's psychoactive.
So, there is a delay, because they've then got to go
through that second stage.
However, the Home Office scientists
have been working through the most commonly available substances.
And if some new substance that's not been seen before
in the UK materialises, then clearly that's got to go
through the same process.
However, some legal and scientific experts
doubt that it will be possible to prove
a new substance is psychoactive with lab tests alone.
I have to make it clear I'm a lawyer not a scientist,
but what I've been told by the scientific community -
there is only one way to tell whether a drug compound
is psychoactive in its effect or not,
and that's by way of human clinical trials.
One might be able to draw comparisons
between the drug in question and like substances,
but until the drug is actually consumed by an individual,
it's actual effect will not be established.
So, if a defendant pleads not guilty,
will a lab-based test of psychoactivity in a new drug
stand up to scrutiny in court?
We asked the Home Office for an interview, but they refused.
Instead, they told us...
"The use of test-tube tests to show a substance is
"capable of producing a psychoactive effect is in line with advice
"from the government's independent experts,
"the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs."
Police Constable Joyce is off to court for Mr Lockhart's case.
It's going to be a real sense of achievement, really.
I think there's only been one or two other court cases in the country,
so this is one of the first.
So, yeah, it'll be interesting to see what the outcome is.
The street dealer pleaded guilty to supplying NPS on five charges.
But he won't be going to prison.
The result from the court is that
he's been given a 12-month community order,
he's been ordered to do 40 hours of unpaid work,
and he's also been sent on a rehabilitation course, as well.
So I am slightly disappointed with that result.
This is because me and my officers
know the really lethal effects that NPS can have
on individuals who take it and also on communities, as well.
So for Jack to receive this sentence is a particularly disappointing
one for us, after the work that has gone into it.
Nationally, there have been nearly 500 arrests
under the Psychoactive Substances Act,
but only a handful of convictions -
one of those being Mr Lockhart's.
For Newcastle alone, more than 16 cases are backlogged in the system.
And all because of this issue around proving
whether a drug is actually psychoactive or not.
This is an Act with so many areas of ambiguity and uncertainty,
I've got no doubt it will throw up many issues,
which will require clarification and examination by the courts.
I take the view that the Act was passed in too much of a rush
and it would have been better had the government just slowed down
a little bit, taken stock of the situation
and drafted a rather more coherent piece of legislation.
12 months ago, Newcastle city centre was experiencing scenes like these.
This is Newcastle's main shopping street and, as you can see,
things have gotten a lot better.
But, without a doubt, if you look hard enough,
you'll still find users here and you'll see the same
in other cities around the UK.
And you're most likely to find them
amongst the country's marginalised and homeless communities.
Do you think it's got any harder for people to get it now?
How often do you do it?
The drugs that were known as legal highs have become a global phenomenon. They have exploded in popularity in the UK, and deaths from these chemical compounds, designed to mimic illegal drugs like cocaine and cannabis, have tripled here in recent years. In May 2016, the government acted by banning these drugs with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The north east of England is one of the worst-hit areas for drug addiction. Panorama spent six months in Newcastle to see how the city is tackling the problem and asks whether the new law is working.