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Deaths from legal highs are overestimated, according to former Government drugs adviser Professor David Nutt


The number of deaths from so-called legal highs is being overestimated with many of the fatalities due to substances either wrongly classified or already outlawed in the UK, a former government drugs advisor has claimed.

Official figures, including those from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), are giving a potentially misleading impression of the scale of the problem fuelling a media and political overreaction, according to Professor David Nutt.

The Home Office recently announced a review into deaths resulting from legal highs such as the now-banned mephedrone which could result in potentially far-ranging changes to Britain’s drugs laws following high profile reports of soaring numbers of user deaths.

Writing in the Lancet, Professor David Nutt and Dr Leslie King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, also highlighted what they claimed were flaws in the way that figures were gathered by the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (NPSAD) which compiles data from coroner’s inquests.

Both organisations strongly disputed the claims.

The NSPAD reported last month that the prevalence of novel psychoactive substances – which include legal highs and new “designer” drugs - in post-mortem toxicology tests has increased 800 per cent in three years, from 12 in 2009 to 97 in 2012. It said that the number of deaths attributed to these substances rose by 600 per cent over the same period.

In the letter the academics said 17 out the 68 deaths blamed on legal highs were due to PMA and a further three linked to PMMA, substances now commonly sold as Ecstasy which have been outlawed in the UK since 1977. 

It also criticised the inclusion in the figures of the herbal chewing stimulant khat, the slimming drug DNP and anabolic steroids, which they said were either not new or not psychoactive.

ONS figures for drug deaths in 2012 meanwhile said 13 of the 52 deaths it reported in 2012 linked to new substances were due to GHB which was banned in 2003, it added.

Professor Nutt, who was sacked as the government’s chief drug advisor under Labour after he criticised stricter laws on cannabis, said there was no simple answer to the number of deaths caused by these substances.

“We don’t know why things are being misrepresented or at what level they are being misrepresented,” he said. “Twice as many people die every day as a result of alcohol than die in a whole year as a result of legal highs. This is political expediency compiled with media hysteria,” he added

A spokesman for the NPSAD said it accepted that definitions needed to be clarified among researchers. “Whilst, we fully agree and make clear in our recent report that other substances are of greater impact nationally, such as more established drugs including heroin and methadone, there remains a legitimate and considerable public concern about Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS), which include so called ‘legal highs’ and other designer drugs. More people are dying after taking these substances than ever before which is a worrying trend,” he said.

The ONS said it did not classify any substances as legal highs. “ONS has not "massaged" the figures for political purposes. It is an impartial organisation and subject to a strict code of practice,” it said in a statement.

Charity DrugScope’s director of communications Harry Shapiro said that only those substances outside the Misuse of Drugs Act which have appeared since 2008/9 should be classified as legal highs.

“Any other approach simply generates unhelpful media headlines and increases levels of concern,” he said.