Legal highs blamed for two brothers' deaths

William and Simon McGough Image copyright family
Image caption William (L) and Simon (R) died after battling addictions to so-called legal highs

A family has spoken out about the dangers of so-called legal highs after they claimed the lives of two brothers in just three years.

William McGough, 30, was in the grip of an addiction to the drugs when he drowned in a river in Wick in 2013.

Last week the body of his brother Simon, 37, was found next to a packet of the psychoactive substances.

Their sister, Melanie Downie, 40, said their parents have been "completely broken" by their deaths.

But she said they wanted share their story in order to highlight the "addictive and destructive" nature of the substances.

An emotional Facebook post about her brothers has been shared hundreds of times.

In it, she wrote: "Yesterday I organised the funeral of my second brother in three years... the reason - legal highs."

The drugs are easily available online and from so-called "head shops" but their sale is due to be banned when new legislation comes into force later this month.

In 2014 they were linked to 112 deaths in Scotland.

Speaking to BBC Scotland, Mrs Downie said her brothers had a "super upbringing" in a "great, loving home" in Leslie, Fife.

But they both fell in with the wrong crowd as teenagers and by the time they were 16 or 17, they were heroin users.

"I lost them a long time ago to addiction," said Mrs Downie. "As far as any relationship with my brothers as adults, I never had one."

For five years, William was clean and during that time he moved to Wick in Caithness and started a family.

However after Simon followed his brother to the far north of Scotland, William fell back into drug-using.

Mrs Downie, who works in nuclear decommissioning, said: "I don't know if heroin is harder to get in that part of the world... but Wick was just awash with legal highs.

"That seemed to be really very easy for them to get, it was cheap and so not long after that William was back on drugs - but not heroin, just legal highs."

Officially known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), legal highs can lead to damaging side-effects, including psychotic episodes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Legal highs will be criminalised from 26 May 2016

"While they were both up in Wick, my parents would get the strangest of phone calls about wires in the walls, about walls that moved," Mrs Downie said.

"They were convinced that they could hear a baby in the loft. It was almost like a hysteria that they would create amongst themselves.

"It was madness. They thought people were poisoning them, they thought people were breaking into their house when they were out and spiking their sugar, their tea, their coffee.

"They had paranoia, delusional thoughts, psychotic episodes and to be honest, they had those episodes even when they didn't have the drugs.

"So it was difficult to tell at times whether they were being like that because they don't have them or because they've had too much."

Mrs Downie said the family know William was using a drug called NRG3 in the hours before his death - and in video footage he appears to be "inebriated".

His body was pulled from the River Wick on 23 March 2013.

Image copyright City of Edinburgh Council
Image caption Legal highs can be bought from 'head shops' and online retailers

Shortly after their brother's death Simon returned to Fife and in the past 18 months, he had become a "functioning addict", his sister said.

"I think there was a deep understanding in our family that Simon would always be an addict of some kind."

She said he hoped the ban on legal highs would help him finally kick the habit.

"Simon posted on his Facebook page two or three days before he died about the ban that was coming up - and he was all for it.

"It was almost like he needed the ban so he couldn't get them so easily. He was a big advocate of getting rid of the drugs that he was addicted to."

Online drugs

A week before his death, he told his sister he had been clean for seven days but he had received an email from a legal high company about a special promotion.

"He said it felt like a sign," Mrs Downie said. "I told him to ignore it and be strong. I'm pretty sure he took them up on that offer."

He died on Friday during a visit to his sister's home in Kilbirnie in Ayrshire.

In her Facebook post, she warned that although the substances are marketed as "safe, fun, cheap and completely legal", they are deadly.

"These manufacturers should be prosecuted. The websites hosting these pages should be held accountable.

"Kids and young people up and down the country are dying from drugs you can buy online. How many more families have to go through this?"

More on this story