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Bad Trip At The Office? Drug Use In The Workplace

Legal highs are making headlines.  According to some reports, our prisons are being deluged with them and our hospitals and paramedics are struggling to cope with patients who’ve become ill after taking them. 

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, ACAS, has recently published guidance on “legal highs”, perhaps indicating a growing workplace problem.  So what are legal highs and what can you do as an employer to ensure your employees keep their feet - and minds - on the ground whilst at work? 

What Are 'Legal Highs'?

Legal highs are substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine or cannabis.  They’re sometimes referred to as club drugs or new psychoactive substances.  These substances can be sold openly in shops or online (do an internet search of the term – I was shocked at what’s on offer).  They may be marketed as plant food, herbal incenses or bath salts.

The full extent of their effects isn’t currently known as they haven’t been tested for human consumption.  Consequently, there are potentially serious health risks associated with taking them.  Side effects may include reduction in inhibitions, paranoia, coma, seizures and, in rare cases, death.  It’s also believed that the negative effects of some legal highs can take a few days to wear off completely, just like the comedown from stimulants such as cocaine or amphetamines.

As an employer, you should make yourself aware of the risks associated with legal highs and understand the potential impact their use could have on your employees.


Many legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, including one of the more publicised - mephedrone (meow meow or MCAT).  However, some of these substances are still legal to possess, despite the potential risks to users’ health.

A major obstacle in clamping down on these substances is that manufacturers can make small molecular changes and quickly produce a whole new range of new and untested drugs.  This makes it difficult for the authorities to keep up with the vast amount of substances entering the market.  It can also reduce the effectiveness of an employer’s drug testing policy because newly developed substances may be difficult to identify. 

In an attempt to control the use of psychoactive substances the Government announced new legislation in May 2015 (The Psychoactive Substances Bill).  The Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament, will place a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances (although there are specific exemptions for substances such as coffee and alcohol).

What can you do as an employer?

  • In light of the upcoming changes you may wish to review your existing workplace drug and alcohol policy to ensure that the use of psychoactive substances is covered.  And if you haven’t got such a policy, it’s worth putting one in place. 
    • Your policy could educate your workforce and management on what constitutes a prohibited psychoactive substance and on the signs of drug use. 
    • You’ll have to decide what line to take in your policy towards staff who have a dependency on alcohol or drugs.  Your approach could be supportive, disciplinary, or a mixture of the two.  You may also wish to distinguish between dependency issues and misconduct issues (such as a one-off drunken incident).
    • Remember that your policy doesn’t have to be limited by what drugs aren’t legally permissible: Alcohol can be legally consumed by over-18s, but your policy may nevertheless limit or ban alcohol consumption during working hours. 
    • Given the difficulties of testing for and prohibiting the use of legal highs, you may want your policy to focus on acceptable behaviours and ability to work, rather than listing what can and cannot be taken.