by Stefanie on 27/01/2015 | Consumption

What are legal highs?

Legal Highs Spice, Blaze, Sense, Yucatan Fire… the names vary, but their legal status is the same. These exotic names are all for substances that are legal highs. Or should we say that are still legal highs?!

What exactly are legal highs? Does legal also mean safe? Why is cannabis the potentially better alternative for people seeking a high? These and other questions are discussed in more detail in the following article.

What are legal highs?

We keep hearing about these legal highs

The media regularly reports on legal highs, whether in the form of warnings, new products to prohibit, personal experiences or changes to legislation (not all of which are implemented).

As the German magazine Hanfjournal reported at the end of June 2014, the German Federal Government’s Drug Commissioner has succeeded in banning a another twenty ‘legal highs’. The dealers, though, are already offering the next series of substances containing precisely the things that the appointed Committee of Experts first included on a watch list.

Spice contains of dried plant material and synthetic cannabinoids.
Spice contains of dried plant material and synthetic cannabinoids.

At the beginning of July 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared that legal highs are not classified as pharmaceutical products and are not prohibited provided they are not covered by the Narcotics Acts. The Federal Republic of Germany had ruled that legal highs are unsafe pharmaceutical products, but the ECJ overruled this interpretation. Trading in these drugs is therefore not punishable as the illegal sale of unsafe pharmaceutical products. Why not? They are not used to prevent or treat disease. According to the ECJ other means are required to control these substances, but not invocation of the Narcotics Act.

In January 2015, the Federal Court of Justice announced threshold quantities for trade and consumption of legal highs. For four substances, the limits are pretty low. JWH-018 and CP 47,497-C8- Homologue are limited to 2 gram amounts, JWH-073 and CP 47,497 to 6 grams. Dr. Bernd Werse, co-founder of the Drug Research Centre in Frankfurt and member of the Schildower Kreis, an organization of experts committed to the regulation and legalization of drugs, comments on the new ruling:

“For the first time, threshold values have been defined, when it comes to small quantities. And this makes the verdict quite special.”

But he also stresses that the sentence is not very spectacular, because:

“The verdict is not relevant for dealers, … since most of them don’t trade with substances that are clearly forbidden anyways.”

Loopholes in the legislation are allowing these substances to be traded legally.

Legal highs – a definition

Herbal Extasy, source: kmdd.
Herbal Extasy, source: kmdd.

The basic chemical composition of an already banned drug only needs to be altered slightly to contain a new substance that does not fall within the Narcotics Act. Until this substance is prohibited, it is be sold as a legal high, particularly via the internet.

Collective names include incense and herbal blends, synthetic cannabinoids, bath salt solutions, air fresheners, copies of amphetamines, cocaine or Ritalin, cleaning agents, research chemicals and herbal highs made from plant parts and chemicals.

Their effects vary: some are calming, others act as a stimulant. Spice, Spice Gold, Smoke, Sense, Yucatan Fire: They appear to be conventional herbal blends but are impregnated with synthetic cannabinoids.

It could be months, perhaps even years, before these are banned. Until that time, they are available legally online, hence the name legal highs. The problem is: these designer drugs often have a stronger effect than natural cannabinoids.  Their chemical contents are dangerous because they have not been researched. The synthetic chemical compound JWH-018, contained in Spice for example, is thought to be significantly stronger. Since the January verdict, the 2 gram limit applies for this substance. The number of newly discovered substances is constantly growing.

The current legal position with respect to legal highs

Here is a brief explanation of the legal position, using Germany, Austria and Switzerland as examples.

In Germany, the private possession of legal highs is legal provided these are not listed under the Narcotics Act. According to the European Court of Justice as explained above, they are not defined as pharmaceutical products either. The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany is currently testing the inclusion in the Narcotics Act of new elements of an offence regarding legal highs.

In Austria, individuals who buy legal highs are not criminalised. Their drugs may, however, be confiscated, if they cannot credibly convey that the substances are not for consumption and under the ‘New Psychoactive Substances Act’ (NPSG) however, dealers can expect a prison sentence of between one and ten years.

In Switzerland, the manufacture, consumption and sale of legal highs is governed by the Narcotics Act. In December 2011, 52 substances and 7 derivatives were included under the Narcotics Act for the first time, followed by a further 46 substances one year later.

Does legal also mean safe?

The substance JWH-018 can also be found in Blaze.
The substance JWH-018 can also be found in Blaze.

Just because the possession of a drug is legal, this does not mean that it is safe. The short, medium and long-terms effects of many legal highs have not yet been (sufficiently) scientifically researched. Taking them can therefore be considered highly risky and even dangerous.

According to reports, 6 people died in Germany in 2014 as a result of consuming ‘legal highs’. It was also reported that natural cannabis is being consumed less while the use of synthetic cannabinoids is on the rise. This tendency is explained by the legal status of the drugs: cannabis = illegal, ‘legal highs’ (as the name indicates) = legal.

For new drugs, criminal liability and threshold quantities first need to be checked and determined, which costs time. This leaves the manufacturers of synthetic drugs with enough time to get their products to their (online) customers.

“These artificial substances are more dangerous, because they more strongly block receptors. This can lead to significantly serious side effects, more so than with THC”, says Werse.

Karsten Tögel-Lins from the online platform Legal High Inhaltsstoffe also sends a clear message:

“The current laws make people consume even more dangerous substances.”

The side effects of synthetic cannabinoids – two studies

Researchers from the University of Freiburg have conducted some research into synthetic cannabinoids and found that in certain cases, they can cause severe symptoms of poisoning.  Data from the ‘Giftzentrale’ (Centre for Toxicity) in Freiburg was also assessed. Between 2008 and 2011, the centre treated 48 patients who had taken synthetic cannabinoids. Some of the patients concerned presented with symptoms that are a-typical with respect to the use of cannabinoids: aggressive behaviour, attacks of cramp, high blood pressure, severe nausea and potassium deficiency.

An online survey carried out by the Centre for Drug Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt showed that users of legal highs and synthetic cannabinoids more frequently reported increased feelings of anxiety, headaches, nausea, palpitations, circulatory problems or failure, unconsciousness, poisoning, hallucinations and psychoses.

Synthetic cannabinoids have a stronger potential to cause addiction and are considerably more dangerous than cannabis and its natural cannabinoids.

The current body of knowledge regarding legal highs comes predominantly from individuals who have used them.

The cannabis ban and legal highs

The number of Legal Highs rises, source: EMCDDA/EUROPOOL.
The number of Legal Highs rises, source: EMCDDA/EUROPOOL.

Many of the new products appearing on the market are often legal initially, and some countries respond immediately by prohibiting them. This has, however, resulted in an ongoing cycle of new, increasingly less tested synthetic products being available on the market, or online market, within days or hours of the previous products becoming prohibited.

According to a report on the website Alternative Drogenpolitik which considers alternative drugs policies, the number of psychoactive substances reported in the EU early warning system has increased constantly over the years: in 2009 there were 24 substances, in 2011 there were 49, in 2012 there were 73 and by 2013 there were 81.

The substances are not prohibited, but dealing in them is, which makes them quasi legal and renders quality control virtually impossible. The online trade is virtually impossible to control.

Discussion concerning the prohibition of groups of substances

A discussion has been going on for a long time regarding whether the phenomenon of legal highs can be counteracted by prohibiting not just individual substances, but whole groups of substances.

The current practice of illegal laboratories is the alteration of the molecular structure of a prohibited substance in such a way to create a drug that is not yet prohibited – a legal high. If, however, a whole group of substances were to be prohibited at once, this could truly work against the illegal trade practised by these laboratories.

It is difficult to ban all legal highs at once, though. For one thing, the pharmaceuticals industry and the big chemical companies would object, because their products also contain substances that would belong to the prohibited groups of substances.

Secondly, new synthetic drugs will also mean new groups of substances.

Last but not least, the Constitutional Court would be needed to set the provisions.

Business and discussions around legal highs appear to be a cat-and-mouse game. Even from the example of these substances, it is clear what the consequences of an inconsistent, irrational, ill-thought-out drugs policy would be. Sensi Seeds will continue to monitor the phenomenon and provide updates.

Comment Section

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You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.



I agree with you, and every time they ban a legal high - a new one pops up, as usual. In New Zealand they seemed to ban ALL smoke mixes which is good. More European countries should take after that.

What about legal lean by the way? It seems.. strange. Seems to be all natural.


Scarlet Palmer

Hi Shiiiing,

Thank you for your comment :) I've never heard of legal lean, will look into it further. I agree, it does seem strange!

With best wishes,



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