Written by Richard Denton, Senior HR Consultant

It is becoming more common for our HR Consultancy team to receive enquiries about legal highs in addition to the problems you encounter with traditional drugs and alcohol misuse.

Legal highs are largely substances which imitate the effects of illegal drugs when consumed, but are not actually illegal themselves. As with illegal drugs, they can have a range of effects on users and as an employer you should consider the impact for your employees and the workplace.

ACAS have issued new guidance on dealing with legal highs in the workplace.

Key points

  • There are many so called “legal highs” which are already illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act but new substances – yet to be controlled continue to emerge on the market.
  • The drugs imitate the effects on users of more traditional illegal substances.
  • During 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated.
  • There is currently legislation going through Parliament to ban the supply of these drugs based on their psychoactive effects.
  • As an employer you should consider legal highs when reviewing and updating drug and alcohol policies.

Legal highs

We have seen an increase during recent years in the sale and use of so called “legal highs”. Legal highs, or psychoactive drugs or New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, generally cannot be sold for human consumption and are often marketed as bath salts, incense or plant food. They mostly contain synthetic, chemical compounds which imitate the effects of more traditional, illegal drugs such as speed and cannabis.

Often they contain ingredients which haven’t been tested on humans and so the effects of human consumption are hard to predict. These drugs can have a range of effects on users and are generally used as stimulants, “downers” or hallucinogens.

As they are marketed as legal and sold openly in shops or online, many users may not fully realise the effects they might have. Many users are also unaware that, despite being legal, their use is likely to be banned in most workplaces under the employer’s drugs policy.

Managing the use of drugs in the workplace

Alcohol and drugs policies within the workplace do not have to be limited to what is and isn’t allowed in the law. The use of alcohol is not illegal, yet most employers will have a ban or limit on alcohol consumption during working hours. Legal highs should be treated in the same way and built into Alcohol and drugs policies.

If you have a policy which includes drug testing this may be more challenging when trying to identify legal highs as the compounds they contain change regularly. It is advisable to focus on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, concentrate and assess risk, rather than the drugs themselves.

Policies should encourage users to seek help for their problems and educate staff and managers on the signs of drug use and what to be aware of.

Dealing with someone who has a problem with using legal highs should be approached in the same way as any other workplace drug or alcohol misuse.

Your HR Consultancy team can provide advice and support for any business which is encountering alcohol and drug issues in the workplace.  We can also help you put together an appropriate policy or make an amendment to your current Employee Handbook.