Altered States: Legal Highs, Substance Use and Recovery in Portsmouth

Poet Maggie Sawkins talks to Recovery Broker Leigh Tora Westmore about substance use, New Psychoactive Substances and Portsmouth’s Recovery Community.

What got you interested in New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)?

I started with cannabis and sniffing gas when I was thirteen. I then encountered full-on psychoactive substances during the rave scene of the Nineties. Some of my best experiences were had dancing in night clubs!

Around then I discovered Alexander Shulgin, a Californian chemist, nicknamed the godfather of MDMA (Ecstasy). Shulgin designed and developed thousands of psychoactive drugs similar to LSD and ecstasy, along with many analogues (drugs resembling other drugs in their chemical structure). I was extremely interested in his work.

I suppose I’m quite nerdish when it comes to talking about the different drugs and chemicals. I’m just fascinated with how they work in our brains. It can get me almost as high as taking the substance!

Author Richard Rudgley says that human beings have always sought altered states of consciousness to liberate themselves from the “restrictions of mundane existence”. What do you think?

He’s right. We’ve been altering our consciousness since we first realised we could. The happiness chemical in magic mushrooms (psilocybin), for example, is nearly identical to the chemical which produces serotonin (a neurotransmitter produced by the brain that influences moods). In the end, it’s about what societies regard as ‘acceptable’.

I believe there is a time and place for some of these substances. I found LSD to be quite demonic at times but also a powerful teacher. It opened up my mind to a lot of things: I found new levels of consciousness and on some psychedelics I experienced a type of ego death, where my sense of self no longer made any point. It was like losing a constructed fabric of reality. I never really got to see or explore what was underneath but I’m sure there are many psychotherapeutic applications to an experience of this nature. A new report on David Nutt’s website Drug Science discusses how psychiatry is revisiting psychedelic drug therapy after a 40-year hiatus.

As a teenager, I enjoyed LSD and magic mushrooms, although I knew it was risky and had heard about ‘bad trips’. I then took a psychoactive substance, concocted by a chemist friend, which gave me an overwhelming feeling of desolation. Fortunately it passed as soon as the drug wore off – but it was enough to put me off trying anything else. What made you stop using?

My children. I was really lost in addiction to heroin and benzodiazepines and still dabbling with psychedelics. In particular I was using a drug called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) which makes LSD look like a day off! The benzodiazepam (valium) that I was using drove me into making really silly decisions and I was drifting into chaos. Then the police raided me for operating a drugs factory (they do like to exaggerate!) and removed all my drugs.

This was a big wake-up call for me. I had to choose between taking drugs or being a father to my children. I chose the responsible and more difficult path. I’m grateful the police turned up. If they hadn’t, I’d have carried on until I died. I’d given up all hope.

There had previously been times when I’d lived successfully without drugs, so going back to a life of addiction was a painful place to be in.  I wish I’d had the courage to ask for help earlier – but it didn’t happen.

I’ve been clean now since May 2013. Sometimes I miss taking psychedelics, especially when I read about some of the more exciting ones on the market. But I’m not a teenager anymore. I’ve had enough.

Tell me about your work with Portsmouth’s Recovery Community and ‘Crooked Cactus’.

My experience of making psychoactive substances and studying new and emerging drugs led a friend to ask me to talk about legal highs at Fareham Drug and Alcohol Workers Group (DAWG). I went along and surprised myself! I had so much information.

That was January 2014, when people increasingly wanted to know about these drugs because of how ‘the industry’ had taken off. People were (and still are) shocked and scared by it. I found standing up and giving presentations to rooms full of people difficult, but I enjoyed the challenge.

I completed Portsmouth City Council’s Recovery Brokers course last year and I’m now working with people with problems after taking NPS. I visit Adult Mental Health wards at St James Hospital once a fortnight and talk to patients and staff about NPS. We’re doing a training day with the rehab team. It’s all pretty new but we’ll see what happens.

Crooked Cactus is a twitter account I set up to follow the leading academics in substance misuse research. I also follow all the head shops (to see what they’re selling) and the chemists (to see what they’re making). I talk to people about Home Office policy.

I’m fascinated about how the drug scene is changing and have contacts all over the world. I give presentations and training on NPS and was recently invited by the Home Office to help them develop a standardised training pack for young people. They are interested in my point of view to help them deal with the current situation.

I recently headed a NPS consultation day training session in Hampshire and I regularly go into schools. There are quite a few experts about but I don’t know how many have lived experience like me.

The name Crooked Cactus comes from a crooked San Pedro Cactus that I have owned for over 20 years – it is the only thing I still have from back then.

As you know, countries such as Portugal have liberalised their approach to drug use, including decriminalisation. Should we adopt similar strategies?

This would be a really good idea. Lots of people use drugs regularly, without causing anyone a problem. Are they criminals? Why should drug addiction be regarded as a crime when the vast majority of recreational drug users do so without causing any harm to society?

On the other hand, it’s legal to drink alcohol. And you can regularly witness people vomiting on pavements after a Friday night out.

Most parents’ nightmare is to see their child become a drug addict. Does the current increase in the use of so called ‘legal highs’ make this more likely?

I don’t know. I do know that it doesn’t matter to young people whether drugs are legal or not. These days they certainly have access to a vast range of currently legal highs, some of which may have far- reaching affects. Many are so new that we still don’t know what’s in them. The risks are enormous. Certainly, more young people are ending up in acute mental health wards in Portsmouth than ever before. It costs the Health Service a fortune.

I think we just have to give young people the facts, so that they can make informed choices. We should also test and regulate all new substances before they go on the market. Medical staff would then be prepared should things go wrong.

It also doesn’t really make sense for someone to manufacture a harmful or lethal psychoactive substance. The man who gave us methedrone (mcat, meow meow) is now designing a drug that will stop people binge drinking because he says it’s safer than alcohol.

A local carers group is lobbying MPs for the closure of head shops selling legal highs. Would this deter use by young people?

I doubt it very much. The growth in legal highs is directly down to prohibition. Heroin’s classified as a Class A drug but it doesn’t stop people using it. Closing head shops would just displace the problem to drug dealers or the internet.

The shops should be regulated rather than closed down. Teresa May’s policy to get them closed before the election is designed to get votes. I can understand people wanting politicians to do something about the situation, but lobbying for regulation would be more effective.

We have five head shops in Portsmouth. I’ve heard that some give drugs on tick, opening children up to exploitation. There’s no age-limit, no control, no agreed purchase limit. Some of the drugs sold are dangerous, including some in brightly coloured packs attractive to children. The shops get around the law because items are labelled as research chemicals not for human consumption. Bottled water is more regulated!

The shops attract all sorts of customers, from young mothers with children in pushchairs to men in suits. One customer takes a taxi on Fridays to buy Cherry Bomb (synthetic cannabis) to take back to his care home. You could say where’s the harm in that?

There’s a ‘head shop’ at the end of my road which looks quite intriguing. What advice could you give me should I be tempted to pop in to buy a legal high? I’m particularly interested in one that’s called ‘I Can’t Believe it’s not Heroin’.

I’d start by asking yourself why you want to take this interesting sounding substance. Maybe think of going for a walk on the seafront instead? There are synthetic opiate drugs such as Kratom that can cause massive problems (two people in Portsmouth have undergone detox recently after becoming addicted to it), and it’s caused massive problems in Asia and Thailand.

If you proceed, talk to someone about it and do thorough research. Consult websites such as or and look at the experiences of others first. If you don’t know what the drug is inside the packet then try Welsh Emerging Drugs and Identification of Novel Substances Project – find out first. If you want to see the experiences of others try YouTube, for example, look up YouTube “Bad Salvia Trip” and then see if it’s still appealing.

If you’re still determined and it all goes wrong, ask for help. If necessary, call an ambulance.

These days my drug of choice is wine – and most people enjoy a drink or two without any apparent harm. However, twice as many people die daily through alcohol as die each year from legal highs. Why do you think legal highs get such a bad press?

Because the media is more dangerous than legal highs! There’s a lot of ignorance towards people who use drugs, which appeals to those who want to make judgements on others. It’s called intoxiphobia and is another form of discrimination.

The truth is that there are problems associated with all drugs, especially alcohol. However chemists are currently designing drugs which could stop people binge drinking!

Would you agree that if you’re serious about recovery you need to move away from the circles you’re mixing in? I’ve heard it said that Portsmouth is one of the best places in the country to be a recovering addict. What have we got that other places haven’t?

Some people say that you should move out of your own district if you’re intent on recovery. But I don’t think it makes any difference. If I wanted to get high on a desert island I’d find a way of brewing up coconut juice! If you want to use you will use – it doesn’t matter where you are.

Portsmouth has some of the highest service standards in the country, and a reputation for high recovery rates. We have two treatment centres in the city, which bring in people from all over the country. A key factor in our success is the involvement of substance users themselves in influencing the decision makers. It’s a buzzing, vibrant community with groups such as SMART Recovery and ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and the PUSH recovery community.

In 1995 there was just one NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting in Portsmouth. Now there are many more, with some meetings attracting over 100 people. Being part of the recovery community in Portsmouth is a life saver for me. I have found meaning and purpose in my life again, and most of all I get to be a father to my children.

Photography copyright Maggie Sawkins/Leigh Tora Westmore