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EXCLUSIVE: The dangerous chemicals contained in legal highs that are available at pocket-money prices

Legal highs Photo: ITV News

It's a well-used statement from drugs charities, that Legal Highs are available too easily and too cheaply.

According to one charity, Addaction, there are more so-called 'head shops' in the North East than anywhere else in the country.

It's a subject that has always interested me. A subject that for a long time I have wanted to investigate. So I decided to put this theory to the test.

Just how easy IS it to get hold of legal highs? Are the statements backed up by the facts? With the help of colleague Nikhita Chulani we set off armed with forty pounds in our pockets with the aim of buying whatever we could.

The results were quite surprising.

ITV researcher Nikhita Chulani sets off to buy legal highs Credit: ITV News

Within just over an hour we were able to get hold of eight different varieties of legal highs from different locations. What surprised me was that it wasn't just from the Head Shops that we were able to buy them.

We also sourced our legal highs from a petrol station, a newsagents and a souvenir shop.

Bought for around £5 a bag. Pocket money prices.

Legal High Credit: ITV News

Each time we were given the advice "this is not for human consumption". But the truth is the majority of these substances resemble cannabis. And the majority of people buying them smoke them as if they were smoking cannabis.

This is where drugs charities say the problem lies. Because contained within these substances are chemicals designed to replicate the effects of marijuana - but of course these are not in any way natural.

According to the drugs charity Lifeline, effects can be catastrophic and damaging to anyone taking them.

They are marketed to look like cannabis so what we get is somebody who has experience of rolling a joint of cannabis. They will do exactly the same process with the legal highs but they are ten times more potent. With psychosis and extreme paranoia like i've never seen before.

– Mick Portis, Lifeline
Legal Highs are available over the counter on many High Streets Credit: ITV News
Lifeline is one charity that helps those addicted to legal highs Credit: ITV News

So we had been able to buy substances for as little as £5 a time, which drugs workers say are ten times more powerful than the drugs they are designed to replicate.

The next step in this investigation was to find out exactly what was contained in them.

Scientists at Newcastle University carried out a series of complicated tests on our samples. They were looking to see what chemical compounds were contained in them.

Scientists at Newcastle University testing the legal highs Credit: ITV News
The results of the testing showed dangerous chemicals were contained within Credit: ITV News

The results were shocking. Every one of our samples contained complex chemical compounds, that had been designed to replicate the effects of cannabis. Some of the samples contained as many as four.

According clinical physicians and toxicologists if someone were to smoke the legal highs that we bought then they had the potential to cause serious harm - and could leave the person taking them seriously ill in hospital.

Some products contain several of these compounds. Some have all four some maybe only have two in them. I think death from using one of these smoking mixtures would be extremely rare but they could cause very severe toxic effects. Certainly enough to bring you into hospital and maybe even go into intensive care.

– Professor Simon Thomas, Newcastle University

The Government acknowledges that legal highs are a problem. Even the term is cause for concern with many drugs charities preferring to call them psychoactive substances.

Next year it's hoped legislation will be in place to ban them completely.

But for now they are still readily available on our high streets at pocket money prices. And as our investigation has shown they have the potential to cause serious harm

See Kenny Toal's full report here:

But what about the families forced to deal with legal highs? What help is available to them?

Some charities say the number of people contacting them desperate for help has more than doubled over the past twelve months. One of them is PROPS.

This is the story of one woman who sought their help after her son became addicted to legal highs at the age of just fourteen.

Organisations that can help: