BMJ Open 2:e000977 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000977
  • Public health
    • Research

A chemical analysis examining the pharmacology of novel psychoactive substances freely available over the internet and their impact on public (ill)health. Legal highs or illegal highs?

  1. John W Bond3
  1. 1Department of Criminology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  2. 2School of Psychology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  3. 3Department of Chemistry, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Tammy Ayres; tca2{at}
  • Received 8 March 2012
  • Accepted 18 June 2012
  • Published 31 July 2012


Objectives Public Health England aims to improve the nation's health and acknowledges that unhealthy lifestyles, which include drug use, undermine society's health and well-being. Recreational drug use has changed to include a range of substances sold as ‘research chemicals’ but known by users as ‘legal highs’ (legal alternatives to the most popular illicit recreational drugs), which are of an unknown toxicity to humans and often include prohibited substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Consequently, the long-term effects on users' health and inconsistent, often illegal ingredients, mean that this group of drugs presents a serious risk to public health both now and in the future. Therefore, the aim of this study was to ascertain what is in legal highs, their legality and safety, while considering the potential impact, these synthetic substances might be having on public health.

Design A total of 22 products were purchased from five different internet sites, 18 months after the UK ban on substituted cathinones, like mephedrone, was introduced in April 2010. Each substance was screened to determine its active ingredients using accepted analytical techniques.

Setting The research was conducted in Leicestershire but has implications for the provision of primary and secondary healthcare throughout the UK.

Results Two products, both sold as NRG-2 from different internet suppliers, were found to contain the banned substituted cathinones 4-methylethcathinone (4-MEC) and 4-methylmethcathinone (4-MMC), the latter being present in much smaller quantities. Although sold as research chemicals and labelled ‘not for human consumption’, they are thinly disguised ‘legal highs’, available online in quantities that vary from 1 g to 1 kg.

Conclusions Despite amendments to legislation, prohibited class B substances are still readily available in large quantities over the internet. The findings suggest that these prohibited substances are being manufactured or imported into the UK on a large scale, which has serious implications for public health and clinicians who are ill equipped to deal with this newly emerging problem.


  • To cite: Ayres TC, Bond JW. A chemical analysis examining the pharmacology of novel psychoactive substances freely available over the internet and their impact on public (ill)health. Legal highs or illegal highs? BMJ Open 2012;2:e000977. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000977

  • Contributors TCA conceptualised the paper and applied for funding to conduct the research. JWB conducted the chemical analysis of the substances. Both authors contributed to the writing, argument and structure of the article including any revisions that have been made.

  • Funding This study was funded by the University of Leicester, College of Social Sciences research grant. The funding source had no role in the study design, analysis or in the writing up of the research.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This research received ethical approval (reference tca2-88995) from the Criminology Department's ethics committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement There are no additional data available.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: and

blog comments powered by Disqus