Blanket Ban on ‘Legal Highs’ has Policy Implications for Employers [NEWS RELEASE 3 JUN]

The new blanket ban on so-called ‘legal highs’ has implications for employers up and down the country. Though the new legislation is especially relevant for industries that require drug and alcohol (D&A) policies and screening by law, it has wider implications for all workplaces.

  • New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) are designer synthetic drug equivalents of illegal drugs.
  • Employers need to know that negative effects of NPS can continue long after use, putting a workplace at risk.
  • Though the new legislation is especially relevant for industries that require drug and alcohol (D&A) policies and screening by law, it still has wider implications for all workplaces.
  • Read expert opinion from SureScreen Diagnostics Ltd and Matrix Diagnostics Ltd, industry specialists in policy, analysis and testing.

The Psychoactive Substances Act bans the production, supply and importation or exportation of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) – designer synthetic drug equivalents of illegal drugs. Employers need to know that negative effects can remain long after use, putting a workplace at risk. Users can be subject to recurring paranoia, aggression and other irrational thoughts and moods, whether under the influence or not, and also longer term implications for mental health. For employers, this means staff users can suffer these after effects while at work, with increasing implications for performance and safety in long term users.

Steps to take

Organisations with D&A policies will now need to update them, while the new legislation should act as a wake-up call for employers without such policies that should act swiftly to put one in place. Without a carefully considered policy that allows for testing and sets out the consequences of use, disciplinary action may not be legally enforceable, even following positive diagnostic test results.

NPS constantly alter; recent reporting suggests two new NPS drugs being discovered every week on average within the EU and with this persistent flux simply listing specific compounds or drug ‘street’ names within in a workplace policy will not be enough. BHWA agrees with the ACAS advice that employers should also focus their policy on the effects the drugs have on employees in terms of their behaviours and ability to work, rather than the specific drugs themselves.

Reality Check

Though the concept of a blanket ban is welcomed by many organisations, there has been criticism that the legislation has been rushed in and may be difficult to enforce.  Users’ behaviour may not change as a direct result of the blanket ban, and it may in fact cause a push towards illegal street dealers, but employers have the power to make a major impact. If employees fully understand that their use of these substances may result in disciplinary action and even dismissal, this can act as a powerful ‘reality check’, one that feels closer to home.

Communication is key. It is important that employers inform employees of the blanket ban and put clear policies in place that detail the action that will be taken if employees use these substances. Even before the ban came into effect, many users may not be aware that their use is likely to be banned in most workplaces under the organisation's existing drugs policy.


Where employers already enforce random and regular substance testing schemes, the new challenge here may present barriers.

BHWA Director Charlotte Cross explained “Heavily regulated industries, such as rail, offshore or the utilities sector, may have taken years to establish now accepted policies for D&A testing, so moving the goal posts will be no doubt be tricky. And all employers will also have to ensure that the diagnostic service they use can keep pace with the regularly changing NPS compounds. This is no small task for any laboratory.” 

BHWA founder member, James Lawson, of Matrix Diagnostics Ltd commented: “Good media coverage has resulted in some employers starting to write into their D&A testing policies that legal highs can and will be tested for. Thanks to technology keeping pace with new legal high usage, the main players in the drug and alcohol testing sector do have detection solutions in place to help employers. The challenge to keep rapidly evolving your testing repertoire to at least try and keep up with new demands is fierce. Drug testing companies need to move swiftly to keep up, or be left behind with clients feeling let down.”

Alastair Campbell, Director at SureScreen Diagnostics Ltd, also a founder member added: “The first line of defence against the effects of NPS in the workplace is to have a robust drug and alcohol policy. Whether you’re updating your policy to include NPS, or writing one for the first time, it’s also important to remember that testing for organic drugs of abuse is also still highly relevant”.

“In addition to random testing, many organisations have ‘for-cause’ and ‘suspicion’ testing in place. We advise that noticeable psychological or physiological change is a reason to investigate and if required conduct a screening test”

As with drugs and alcohol, the BHWA recommends that NPS policies should encourage users to seek help for their problems and educate staff and line managers on the signs and impacts of potential drug use.


Editor’s Notes:

  • A recent EMCDDA report (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) recorded an average of two new NPS drugs being discovered every week within the EU. The problem is growing and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
  • NPS have been linked to more than 120 deaths in the UK and a rise in violent assaults in prison
  • The mission of the Better Health at Work Alliance (BHWA) is to make implementing workplace health practices an easy and obvious step for all employers by offering access, information, guidance and solutions in a one-stop bespoke digital platform.
  • BHWA’s Founder members already encompass some of the UK’s largest occupational health providers, alongside niche specialists and established regional services, including: Asclepius Occupational Health Ltd, Medigold Health Ltd, SureScreen Diagnostics Ltd, Matrix Diagnostics Ltd, CBT Clinics Ltd, Heales Medical Ltd, PayPlan and CANTAB Corporate Health.
  • Media and branding agency, Champions (UK) plc has an official delivery partnership in place with BHWA. The company will act as a key resource behind BHWA, running marketing, PR, and social media campaigns, communications strategy and website for the Alliance:


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