Legal highs 'tried by 12 year olds,' claim drug workers
Children as young as 12 in Wales are trying legal highs, which mimic the effects of cannabis and ecstasy, a drug support group says.
The Gwent Drug Interventions Programme (DIP), in Cwmbran, said there is strong anecdotal evidence they are a growing problem.
And a new Welsh government-funded drug testing project, called Wedinos, has been criticised as a waste of money.
But Public Health Wales said the scheme helped to treat users.
There are around 600 offences under misuse of drugs laws, but there is estimated to be several thousand legal highs, or new psychoactive substances.
End Quote Lyn Webber Head of Gwent Drug Interventions Programme
They only need to take two or three drags on it and they fall unconscious”
They are chemically similar to illegal drugs, but have been altered to make them legal.
They cost around £8 per gram in shops and can also be bought over the internet.
Legal highs are labelled as "research chemicals", "herbal incense" or "not for human consumption".
Little official data is available on how many people develop problems with them, but the Gwent DIP said it has saw a 15% rise in referrals between April and September last year.
Lyn Webber, head of Gwent DIP, fears youngsters are trying the chemicals because they are easily available.
"They only need to take two or three drags on it and they fall unconscious," he said.
"That is extremely high in strength and that's what frightens me, these individuals are taking these drugs, intravenously or swallowing them and once they're in the body there's very little we can do.
"We don't really know what the side effects are going to be."
Mr Webber said the problem became more apparent last year when fewer people in police custody tested positive for illegal drugs but displayed symptoms of being under the influence.
Between 2012 and 2013 the DIP tested 500 people in police custody for the presence of legal highs and 69% of those came back positive.
Of those who tested positive, 76% had never engaged with any drugs service previously.'Accurately capture'
End Quote Spokesman Welsh government
We are taking action to help individuals and society deal with the problems of substance misuse”
Michael Lawrence, who deals with legal highs for the rehabilitation provider CRI, said the substances were causing issues elsewhere too.
"We've got people who don't know what they're taking and services which are struggling to get systems in place to accurately capture what is being taken," he said.
"It's notoriously difficult to map trends, but what I can say is there has been an increase in use from 2012 up until recently."
The Wedinos project, set up in October 2013 and run by Public Health Wales, was set up to tackle the increase in legal highs.
The £100,000 scheme is designed to identify what chemicals are in circulation and use the information to reduce harm.
Samples are sent to the laboratory in Cardiff and the test results posted online, identified by a reference number.
"I think a lot of Welsh taxpayers will be very angry this morning that at a time when the Welsh NHS is facing record breaking cuts," Conservative shadow health minister Darren Millar said.
"The Welsh government can... set up a website which, frankly, drug peddlers can use to test the quality of their substances and because it's in the public domain the outcome of the tests can then be used as a marketing tool for them to push prices up on the streets and advertise what they've got for sale."
But Josie Smith, from the Public Health Wales, said samples had been received from users.
"It's very important from a health perspective to understand what substances are in circulation in the community that we can inform clinicians so if they come across individuals experiencing harm are well informed and know how to treat and work with these individuals," she said.
A Welsh government spokesman added: "We are taking action to help individuals and society deal with the problems of substance misuse. Wedinos can provide essential intelligence and can help save lives.
"It contributes to the wider UK and European early warning systems in place to identify and monitor changing trends in drug use."