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Doctors raise concerns about ‘legal highs’

Poisons experts report 13-fold increase in calls from doctors treating users of synthetic cannabis

Mark Gould

Friday, 24 October 2014

The National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) has reported a big rise in the number of enquiries from doctors about "legal highs", especially about man-made cannabis substitutes.

In its annual report*, published today, it notes that there were more than 130 telephone queries, a 13-fold increase, from clinicians treating users in the past year. There was also a two-fold increase in queries from NHS health professionals through the NPIS online database TOXBASE, over the same period.

The report says that the only "traditional" illegal drug which frontline medics asked more questions about than so-called "legal highs" last year, was cocaine.

NPIS telephone hotline took more than 50,000 calls during 2013 to 2014. The database TOXBASE, which offers clinical users background and treatment information on thousands of poisons and chemicals, was accessed more than 575,000 times in the period covered by the report.

Prof Simon Thomas, director of the Newcastle unit of the NPIS, said: "The manufacturers of these so-called ‘legal’ highs are moving quickly to create new drugs as these substances are banned.

"This is a significant problem for us because although new products are chemically similar to ones that have been banned, each new substance is different and information on their safety is very limited. Synthetic forms of cannabis have been used increasingly in recent years and pose users a particular problem as some appear considerably more toxic than traditional cannabis and many are now controlled as class B drugs. Those who use these substances are taking a real gamble with their health.”

Rosanna O’Connor, PHE’s director for drugs and alcohol, said: "PHE will be strengthening our efforts around tackling the use of new and emerging substances. We support local areas to address the issue. This involves sharing intelligence about these substances, including on the harms they cause and the best responses; educating young people about the risks; preventing and treating harm; and supporting those who have developed problems to address them."

The report, which only deals with queries to the service not total number of patient presentations at UK hospitals, also highlights that the advisory service saw a notable increase in queries about e-cigarettes - in some cases where children had been exposed. In 2013 to 2014 the service was contacted for advice 204 times, which is more than all the calls it received on the subject between 2007 and 2013 combined.

Dr John Thompson, Director of the Cardiff unit of NPIS, said that with e-cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular, adults using these products should be careful about keeping them out of reach of children, just as they would dishwasher tablets or liquid detergent capsules.

* National Poisons Information Service Report 2013/14. Public Health England, National Poisons Information Service

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