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HomeNewsGrainne Kenny: Closing down 'headshops' is a must. Legal highs are lethal...

Grainne Kenny: Closing down ‘headshops’ is a must. Legal highs are lethal not legal


A ‘New Psychoactive Substances Act’ aiming to restrict the sale of legal highs across the EU leaves much to be desired.

The EU Vice President Viviane Reding was correct when she said that “legal highs are not legal they are lethal at the announcement of proposed new laws to reduce their importation and trafficking earlier this week.

Dr Death, Annihilation, Toxic Waste are all examples of these new psychoactive drugs, that are now sold via the internet or in ‘headshops’ on the high street, near you, to anybody who wishes to experiment with this new and dangerous form of drug abuse.

They represent the greatest challenge to drug prevention and enforcement for decades. They encourage a culture amongst young people – who are not yet risk averse – in which they will consume a drug without even knowing what is in it.

They are indeed lethal. EU and national action is overdue. There have been 154 associated deaths in England the last five years; and an 80 per cent increase in the number of deaths just in the last year. In Scotland the number of such deaths has increased by 300 per cent in the last three years. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of their dangerous health and mental health risks.

Most drug users – even teenage ones – poly-drug abuse. They drink alongside legal highs (NSPs or new psychoactive substances) so it can be impossible to ascertain the actual cause of death. As with cannabis, the major damage inflicted by these drugs it is not about overdose or dying but about shocking health and mental health repercussions.

Yet another appalling case reported this week showed the devastation inflicted by GBL – a legal high until it was ‘scheduled’ and added to the list of prohibited dangerous drugs. It not only ravaged its victim’s face, but left her on life support from liver failure fifteen times.

Many drugs that were previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone (meow meow), naphyrone, BZP, GBL and synthetic cannabinoids (such as those found in Spice products), but governments have still found themselves unable to keep up.

That is why more practical action is needed.

In Ireland we suffered from an uncontrolled mushrooming of head shops with deaths and related crime. Then in 2010 as a result of public pressure the Irish Government introduced new laws which, overnight, resulted in the closure of more than 100 head shops. The inclusion of the term ‘generic’ in substance identification,  covering a range of chemical compounds that might be included in them,  meant these outlets had to prove that none of them,  none of these mood altering substances, would be found in their products.  They could not.  It meant the Drugs Squad could raid and seize without delay.

The penalties for breaking the law include very large fines and or jailing. Many of these traders now reside in our prisons. The outcome has been a notable reduction in use and in attendance at hospital emergency rooms. There is now little profit to be made from bongs and paraphernalia and the shops have shrunk from more than 100 to about 10. It is a ‘win win’ situation all round. Many lives have been saved as a result of this directive.[1]

As someone who has fought for many years to have these dangerous substances banned I believe policy makers and grass root activists would be well advised to give the EU’s announcement only a guarded welcome. It goes nowhere nearly far enough.

First the cornerstone of the Commission’s proposal that it will be “a quicker and smarter way to tackle legal highs” is open to question.

Second their proposal to reduce the time of banning a harmful substance from 2 years to six months will leave consumers at serious risk within that period of either of death or irreversible mental health risks. It will give the Chinese laboratories that produce these lethal chemical cocktails the time to alter just one chemical and the substance being examined will become ‘legal’ once again for sale. It will waste police time.

Third,  the European Commission’s proposed graduated approach is of deep concern. In this ‘graduated approach’ who is to decide what is a moderate risk or what is not? Will it depend on a death or a serious psychotic episode? The consumer will be the guinea pig.  This is too high a price to pay.

With any drug it is the personal allergic response that poses the real threat, if you remember Lea Betts’s death from ecstasy.  Accident and Emergency consultants in Ireland warned of the impossibility of treating such seriously ill patients when they have no way of knowing what was present in the patients’ systems  – due to the uncontrolled sources the drug were coming from.  There was no antidote and young people died.

If this proposed Act goes into law too much time will be wasted and more importantly the police will be restricted from doing their duty.

Fifth to suggest a grading of harm, as the new law would, would be to remove harmful substances from the criminal code and, with no clear scientific guidelines on what constitutes ‘less harmful’, this would be in breach the of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article.33)

The Irish Government acted immediately with this in mind with a strong new directive to close down headshops which was then introduced without delay. The EU would do well to study Ireland.  So too would the UK as that this is the right approach.  There can be no room for dithering as more lives are lost.

[1] Directive 98/34/EC (art 9.7)

“For urgent reasons, occasioned by serious and unforeseeable circumstances relating to the protection of public health or safety, the protection of animals or the preservation of plants and, for rules on services, also for public policy, notably the protection of minors ,a Member State is obliged to prepare technical regulations in a very short space of time in order to enact and introduce them immediately without any consultations being possible”.

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Grainne Kenny
Grainne Kenny
Honorary President, Europe Against Drugs (EURAD)

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