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New Psychoactive Substances (formerly known as Legal Highs )

New psychoactive substances (which were formerly known as "legal highs") are capable of producing a psychoactive effect in the person who consumes them. As with all drugs, they can have a range of effects on users and employers should consider their impact on their employees and workplaces.

Key points

  • The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, introduced on 26 May 2016, makes drugs formerly known as "legal highs" illegal.
  • There are exemptions in the Act to cover things like medical products, food, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  • During 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales there were a reported 129 deaths where new psychoactive substances were implicated.
  • Employers should consider new psychoactive substances when writing their drug and alcohol policies.

New Psychoactive Substances

In the past few years there has been an increase in the sale and use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), formerly known as "legal highs". They mostly contain synthetic, chemical compounds which imitate the effects of more traditional 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", hallucinogens or synthetic cannabinoids.

Users may not be aware that their use is probably banned in most workplaces under the organisation's drugs policy.

The Psychoactive Substances Act

In an attempt to control the use of psychoactive substances the Government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

The Psychoactive Substances Act prohibits and disrupts the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances in the UK.

The legislation places a blanket ban on all psychoactive (or mind altering) substances, and introduces a list of exemptions for those in everyday use, such as alcohol, coffee and medicines which are regulated elsewhere, as well as drugs already banned under Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

More information on the Act can be found from GOV.UK - Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

Managing the use of drugs in the workplace

Alcohol and drugs policies don't have to be limited to what is and isn't allowed in the law. The use of alcohol is not illegal, yet most companies will have a ban or limit on alcohol consumption during working hours. New psychoactive substances should be built into Alcohol and drugs policies.

If an organisation's policy includes drug testing this may be more challenging when trying to identify new psychoactive substances as the compounds they contain change regularly. It may be easier for the policy to focus on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the drugs themselves.

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

Dealing with someone who has a problem with using new psychoactive substances should be approached in the same way as any other workplace drug or alcohol misuse. Acas has produced advice on Dealing with someone who has a drug or alcohol problem.

Acas training and other ways that Acas can help

Developing Alcohol and Drugs Policies - Acas business solutions

Acas offers a range of advice and support for businesses and individuals dealing with alcohol and drug issues in the workplace.

We can work with your organisation to help you develop, implement and communicate effective drugs policies. Acas has extensive experience in this area and we can provide cost effective solutions to your needs. Acas is also often called in to help organisations improve their managers' skills in handling difficult conversations in the workplace.

Find out more from our Health, wellbeing and managing attendance.

Acas also run practical Training Courses, Workshops and Projects to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplace environments.

Click to view related Acas training and course dates in your area for:

This topic is addressed in Acas Employment Law Update training. View course listings. You may also benefit from viewing our Employment Law Update timetable.