In the wake of increased public pressure, the Government is cracking down on legal highs and ACAS has issued useful guidance on the issue for employers.

What are legal highs?

Legal highs are substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs, but mostly contain synthetic chemical compounds which imitate the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine or cannabis. Legal highs that are not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (many substances commonly referred to as “legal highs” are in fact already illegal under that Act) generally cannot be sold for human consumption and so are often marketed as other products such as incense or plant food. They are becoming an increasing concern on the basis that they often contain ingredients which have not been tested on humans, making their impact and effect somewhat unknown. For an employer, an employee getting “legally high” can present many of the same challenges as those on illegal highs, but some policies do not currently cover “legal high” drug usage.

Given the increased concern around legal highs, the Government has announced the Psychoactive Substances Bill to prohibit the production, distribution, sale and supply of so called legal highs in the UK.

The ACAS Guidance for Employers

Whilst the Bill is currently proceeding though Parliament, ACAS has issued useful guidance on how employers should deal with legal highs in the meantime.

The ACAS guidance recommends that:

  • Legal highs are dealt with in a similar way to alcohol, i.e. a drug which is not illegal but is still usually covered in workplace policies.
  • Legal highs are built into existing alcohol and drugs policies of employers.
  • Drug testing is not a useful tool for employers to deal with legal highs, given that the compounds used within them regularly change.
  • Employers should focus on the effects that the legal highs have on employees in respect of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the drugs themselves.
  • Employers should also encourage suspected users to seek help for their problems and educate staff and line managers on the signs of legal high use.

Also remember, whilst drug addiction in itself is not normally a disability, conditions which are caused as a result of drug use may amount to a disability. It is therefore important to bear this in mind when dealing with employees who have a drug addiction, including consideration of any reasonable adjustments.