Guidance on 'legal highs' in the workplace

Guidance on 'legal highs' in the workplace


Author: Michael Briggs

Applies to: England, Wales and Scotland

Dealing with alcohol and drugs is tricky enough without the evolving issue of 'legal highs'. Their dangers were reported recently given the increase in prison inmates requiring treatment and there continues to be a general trend in their use.


'Legal highs', also known as New Psychoactive Substances, are substances developed to replicate the effects of illegal drugs. Due to minor alterations at a molecular level, and the speed of new substances entering the market, they aren't classified as being illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, their effects are often similar to the drugs from which they are derived or modelled upon and can therefore be wide-ranging. Given an employer's duty of care, and the importance of health and safety in the workplace, those effects need to be recognised and acted upon at work.

The government is working hard to place a blanket ban on legal highs and continues to consult on its Psychoactive Substances Bill which, when in force, will prohibit and disrupt the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs in the UK.

Managing polices to deal with legal highs

With a sensible approach and by focusing on the workforce rather than the substance, employers will be relieved to hear that there are steps that can be taken to reduce the impact of legal highs in the workplace. ACAS has also released a Guidance Note for employers on this very topic.

The following practical tips will help manage the issue:

  • Clarify what exactly is covered by your Alcohol and Drugs policies

Alcohol and drugs policies don't have to be restricted to illegal substances. Alcohol is legal but the consumption of it at work is governed by the use of appropriate policies. Despite being legal, their effects can be serious. Legal highs therefore need to be built into updated alcohol and drugs policies in the same way as alcohol is.

  • Be clear on how your updated policies cover legal highs

It's difficult enough to define legal highs, so rather than focus on the substances themselves, focus on the effects the substances may have on employees, their behaviour and how they function at work. Set out what is and isn't tolerated within your organisation.

  • Educate your entire workforce

Although legal, consuming or being under the influence of legal highs whilst at work should be prohibited under your alcohol and drugs policy. It is important that employees are made aware of such policies if you wish to successfully enforce them.

Training staff to recognise and understand the warning signs of the use of legal highs and the impact they have in the workplace is fundamental. Early identification can also reduce risk of danger.

  • Remember your duty of care

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst at work. Employees using legal highs present not only a danger to themselves but to other employees, visitors and/or members of the public. As far as practicable, provide a safe place and safe systems of work.

Policies should also encourage users to seek help for their problems and be sympathetic to any concerns raised. Misuse of legal highs can lead to physical and mental impairments and whilst drug addiction isn't itself a disability, conditions arising from addiction may amount to disabilities requiring reasonable adjustments to be made.

ACAS' Guidance can be found at here and here.


This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

About the Author

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Michael Briggs

Senior Associate

0370 086 5066

Michael is an experienced employment lawyer who provides practical, commercial and results-driven advice to a wide range of clients in respect of disciplinary matters, redundancy & reorganisation, absence and performance issues, employment contracts & handbooks and executive appointment & exits. Michael also defends employment tribunal claims.

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