There is evidence accumulating from all over that new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’ are on the up. Reports from mental health services, addiction services, homeless support services and criminal justice settings can leave us in no doubt though hard research evidence is still playing a bit of catch up. One of the reasons that use is up may be down to the effective marketing of NPS. The manufacturers, distributors and vendors must be lauding the marketing triumphs of legal highs.
The legal status that NPS apparently enjoy means that clever salespeople are awash with opportunities and, for drugs, we have never really seen such a fertile selling ground. NPS provide the market with unique opportunities. It was true that heroin, morphine and cocaine were advertised to the Victorians as remedies for all kinds of ills, but they were generally not sold for the purpose of getting high.
Not that NPS are sold for the purpose of getting high either. On the contrary, they are marked most clearly ‘not for human consumption‘ and it may be indicated they would be of use in the bath or for horticultural pursuits. If you value your bath enamel and your plants, these uses are actually best avoided too.
Alcohol is advertised too of course but the adverts are regulated and there are conditions around its sale. The marketing of NPS is getting more sophisticated with intriguing graphics, loyalty cards, free samples, credit on demand and widespread distribution (including petrol stations and corner shops). When you combine this with the keen prices and add in availability via the internet, then the settings for the perfect storm are in place.
And how is marketing impacting on uptake? It’s a huge social experiment that is underway and, as I say, we’ve not seen its like before. There is a bit of evidence and plenty of anecdote. Consider the hundreds of websites where a few clicks and the flash of a credit card will get you next day delivery and small gains pale in significance.
I’m not sure the storm can be avoided, so those of us working in the field will need to be on our toes for the potential flood. It may not happen, but the clouds are gathering. Solid harm reduction advice and clear pathways into treatment and recovery for those seeking it are essential.
The irony of the successful marketing of legal highs is that it will bring business not just to those in the NPS industry, but also to information, treatment and support services. It’s the sort of business that none of us want.