Former legal highs user speaks out as new campaign launched in Leeds

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Andrew had used illegal drugs for years – but it was so-called ‘legal highs’ which ruined his life.

A mephedrone addiction left him attempting suicide while in the grip of drug-induced psychosis.

“I lost my job, my flat, my family and friends,” he said.

“I was left on my own with just a bag of drugs.

“Even when you’re not on it, you have got a screaming voice in your head gagging for it. It’s like being possessed.”

He started drinking at the age of 13, smoking cannabis at 14 and quickly developed a taste for other drugs, including ecstasy, amphetamine, cocaine and crack cocaine. Despite this, he held down a decent full-time job.

“I always felt I didn’t fit in. When I found drugs, I felt I did fit in and found an escape from reality.”

But it was getting involved with mephedrone, known as M-Cat, which caused his life to spiral out of control.

Mephedrone gave Andrew – who asked to remain anonymous – a feeling of “complete oblivion”, and it was much cheaper than the illegal drugs he had been taking.

He managed to hold down his job for two more years, but had to increase the amount of mephedrone he took to get the same high as his tolerance levels built up.

“It all came to a head when I lost my job in 2011 and I went on a massive binge for six months with my redundancy payout,” he said.

After this he decided he wanted to tackle his problem, and underwent 13 months of treatment.

“I finished that and got sorted with a flat and found a girlfriend,” he said.

However he’d underestimated the hold legal highs had over him: “I thought I’d be alright to have one drink. Within an hour I was scoring.”

Over the next few months Andrew would repeatedly give up drugs, only to be drawn back in. The breaking point came in June 2014 when his addiction, and other problems led him to attempt suicide by throwing himself out of a third floor window.

“I woke up in Leeds General Infirmary. I was in and out of drug-induced psychosis,” he said.

He was in a neck brace, had broken his femur and smashed his heel.

Andrew spent two months in hospital, and since then has given up drugs for good.

Now he has turned his life around – after being supported by Forward Leeds, the city’s drug and alcohol service, he started volunteering and now is employed there.

The 33-year-old is backing a new campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of legal highs, especially the long-term health risks like temporary amnesia and severe bladder problems.

“Because it’s a legal drug, people have this perception that it’s alright,” he added.

“This took me from being able to work to two years later, being cowered in a corner screaming because I had got a voice in my head screaming ‘M-Cat, M-Cat’.

“I had hammered other drugs for years and they never took my to the place mephedrone took me. It’s a death sentence. That’s all it is.

Campaign highlights dangers of legal highs

A new campaign in Leeds will warn young people of the “disastrous” consequences of legal highs.

Illegal Highs - Not for Human Consumption will be launched next week as new legislation around the drugs, known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS), comes into force.

Usage of legal highs has spiralled in recent years, with figures from West Yorkshire Police showing incidents involving the drugs have soared from 184 in 2013/14 to 849 in 2015/16.

Now health bosses, drugs experts, the police and Leeds City Council are working together to tackle the issue.

Lisa Parker, executive director of the city’s drug and alcohol service Forward Leeds explained: “The belief held by many that because these drugs are ‘legal’ that they must be ‘safe’ has proved disastrous. There has been many reports of people losing consciousness, having psychotic episodes and even dying from these ever-changing substances which are produced by an unregulated industry.

“The price and availability, both online and in shops, have meant that just about anyone aged over 18 can buy these drugs - often just as strong as or stronger than the classified drugs they mimic.”

The campaign will see targeted advertising across the city, particularly in hot spots such as near colleges and universities, leisure centres and in cinemas, as well as a new website and Facebook page.

Coun Lisa Mulherin, chair of Leeds Health and Wellbeing Board, said: “We have seen an increase in the number of people ringing emergency services and getting admitted to hospital because they have taken these substances. That is why I am delighted organisations are working closely to help this campaign make people think twice about taking these drugs.”

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16 October 2017.  Picture Bruce Rollinson

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