Research chemicals

Legal Highs3

Also known as

Legal Highs, New Psychoactive Substances, Novel Psychoactive Compounds, NPS, Plant Food, Bath Salts, Herbal Highs, RCs, Designer Drugs.


  • Research chemicals is one term used to describe new psychoactive substances or ‘legal highs’.
  • They are designed to produce similar effects to illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis.
  • The main effects can be described using three main categories:
  • Stimulants or ‘uppers’ mimic drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine or ecstasy. Desired effects include feelings of increased energy, alertness and confidence.
  • Depressants or ‘downers’ mimic drugs such as benzodiazepines or GHB. Desired effects include euphoria, increased sociability, relaxation and reduced inhibitions.
  • Hallucinogens mimic drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms or ketamine. Desired effects include distortions and altered perceptions as well as feelings of detachment from the world.
  • There is a separate page for synthetic cannabinoids.


  • Research chemicals usually come in the form of powders, smoking mixtures, or in capsule/pill form.
  • The powders can vary in consistency and colour.
  • The pills and capsules can also vary in size, shape and colour.
  • Generally, packaging tends to be bright and colourful with various catchy brand names.

Method of use

  • Routes of administration will vary depending on the research chemical being used.
  • Pills or capsules tend to be swallowed. Research chemicals that come as powder are generally snorted or wrapped in paper and swallowed, (known as ‘bombing’). They may also be injected.
  • Smoking mixtures are invariably smoked, in a joint or by using a pipe or bong.


  • Research chemicals have been linked to a number of poisonings, emergency hospital admissions and even deaths in the UK.
  • As these compounds are so new, we know very little about what risks they pose or what causes specific observed symptoms.
  • Although research chemicals are likely to have effects similar to other substances in their categories, you can never be sure how you are actually going to react to them.
  • The brand is not indicative of the contents at all. Some tests have revealed varying strengths or even different chemicals in same packaged brands.
  • You increase the risk to yourself if you combine research chemicals with alcohol or any other substances.
  • Using research chemicals may trigger or exacerbate mental health problems.
  • Sharing injecting or snorting equipment risks infection with Hepatitis C and B viruses, as well as HIV.
  • Snorting research chemicals can cause nasal damage.
  • Injecting is particularly dangerous as it is much easier to overdose.

Keeping safe

  • If you choose to use research chemicals, then use in a safe environment and in the company of someone you trust. Ideally, this person will not have used the substances themselves and will be in a position to get help if things go wrong.
  • Take small amounts first to test strength and effect; start low and go slow.
  • The use of research chemicals with alcohol or other substances should be avoided.
  • Some research chemicals can be psychologically addictive and tolerance can quickly build up. Don’t use too frequently and take regular breaks.
  • Be aware that some brands may contain different substances, so always treat each substance as new.
  • In case of emergency, it would be helpful to keep the packaging so medical professionals know what substance you have taken.
  • Do not share injecting or snorting equipment. If you choose to inject then get safer injecting advice either from us, your local drug agency or nearest needle exchange.
  • If snorting, alternate nostrils and clean your nostrils with warm water to minimise damage.
  •  If taking substances orally, wrap it in a cigarette paper, (known as bombing), to protect your throat and oesophagus.

Legal status

  • Many research chemicals are controlled as a Class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which means they are illegal to possess and/or supply. Possession of illegal research chemicals can result in a prison sentence of up to five years and/or an unlimited fine. Supplying illegal research chemicals can result in a prison sentence of up to 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
  • Although some research chemicals have been legal in the past, since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect on 26th May 2016, it is now illegal to supply or import any research chemicals for human consumption. Possession will not be an offence for those which are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, except in prisons.