Legal highs 'more dangerous than cocaine or ecstasy'
So-called legal highs are adding to Northern Ireland's growing drug abuse problem – and could be even more dangerous than cocaine or ecstasy, a charity has claimed.
Shops selling substances over the counter are drawing young people into the drug scene in bigger numbers and at an earlier age, according to the Forum For Action On Substance Abuse (Fasa).
"The introduction of legal highs has made drugs far more accessible," according to Alex Bunting, an official with the charity.
"We always had the issue of illicit drugs but since legal highs have come in, we have seen something new in terms of usage levels and age of onset."
Mr Bunting said legal highs were potentially more dangerous than conventional Class A drugs.
"Legal highs are as dangerous, if not more dangerous," he added.
"If you think about cannabis, ecstasy or even cocaine, human beings have used these drugs for a long time, so we know what the side effects are. The downside of legal highs is that none of them have been put through a test.
"We work with clients, hardened illicit drug users and they say they get a better, more potent hit off legal highs."
Owen O'Neill from the Public Health Agency said the rise in shops selling legal highs meant access to dangerous substances was now greater than ever.
"The head shops present a challenge to us all in terms of a route for young people getting their hands on drugs as opposed to approaching dealers who young people may not know how to access."