Published: 20 August 2019
New research into New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) - formerly referred to as ‘legal highs’ - provides new evidence about why young people were attracted to the drugs, and the health and social risks associated with taking them.
Researchers from Queen's University Belfast led the study, which was commissioned and funded by NIHR. The research findings recommend support using existing evidence-based interventions among young people and high risk populations.
It follows official statistics released today by NHS Digital about smoking, drinking and drug use among young people. These figures show that 6% of 11-15 year olds said they were offered NPS and 1% said they had taken them in the last year. Office of National Statistics figures released last week reported 125 deaths from NPS, double that of the previous year.
This particular research leveraged data from 2,039 young people who were part of the larger Belfast Youth Development Study (BYDS), which tracked a group of young people from ages 11, and examined in detail how they used alcohol and drugs as they grew up. To investigate further, 84 people were then reviewed through a series of in-depth interviews to share their experiences growing up and the circumstances that led them to taking NPS. Individuals in this portion of the study also included young people in prisons and those recruited from drug and alcohol services.
In this NIHR report, serious side effects associated with NPS usage were reported by those who had taken this class of drugs, including significant mental health problems and heart, liver, stomach and bladder issues. The research team found that NPS were always used within a poly drug use context (using more than one drug at the same time) in a range of ways and with alcohol, eg. with mephedrone most snorted it, some made it into capsules and swallowed it and a small number injected it. Examples of drugs taken alongside it were cocaine, alcohol and some with other stimulants like MDMA. In 10% of NPS users surveyed, there was also evidence of moving from synthetic cannabinoids to heroin and vice versa - something that has not previously been reported.
Chief Investigator, Dr Kathryn Higgins, Reader from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work and the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation at Queen's University, said: “Our research explored in detail the varied motives, characteristics and lived experiences of young people using NPS, ranging from experimental users who liked the buzz or the fact that they were cheaper than other drugs to those who had become dependent and needed help from health and social care services. We discovered that there was a lack of knowledge about the negative impacts of taking these drugs due to them being new and constantly changing as well as being marketed at the time as ‘legal highs’ and perceived as ‘safe’.”
Researchers identified contributing risk factors for each group related to use of NPS, such as problems at school, peer pressure, alcohol use, family breakdown, trauma and lack of parental supervision and support.
NPS are synthetic alternatives to traditional illegal drugs. In the UK, most were ‘legal’ until they were banned in May 2016.
More information on the study, which was funded by the NIHR’s Public Health Research (PHR) Programme is available on the NIHR Journals Library.
Other research the NIHR is funding and supporting in the area of drug abuse by young people includes:
● Professor Simon Thomas of Newcastle University is leading the IONA study. Patients aged over 16 who attend hospital with severe symptoms resulting from NPS or suspected heroin use will have the opportunity to take part in the NIHR-funded study, which aims to identify the substances involved that can cause adverse side effects. By identifying these substances, healthcare professionals will be able to act as quickly as possible so that steps can be taken to inform and protect people who might consider using these drugs. The NIHR Clinical Research Network is currently supporting the recruitment of patients onto the trial, which is taking place at sites across the UK.
● Professor Gunter Schumann at King's College London is using genetic, brain imaging and other data to understand how and why some people start using illegal drugs. The team is using hair analysis to map individuals' drug use over a 12 month period, as well as using online surveys and interviews to understand the different ways drugs are used over time. The work is building on the IMAGEN study, a European research project examining how biological, psychological, and environmental factors during adolescence may influence brain development and mental health.