Saturday, January 30, 2010
My news feature on head shops and legal highs from today's Review in the Independent
Head shops are just like any other retailers - except that their stock-in-trade comprises legal pills, powders and herbs that get you high. This week, John Curran, the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, stated outright that he wants to ban the sale of products sold in headshops that simulate the effects of illegal drugs.
Speaking to the National Regional Drugs Task Forces in Mullingar, Mr Curran added that he would also examine issues around planning permission for head shops, public liability insurance, product liability insurance and consumer protection, all in a bid to close the shops down.
“The products that are being sold in head shops – I simply don’t want them sold in this country,” Mr Curran said. “My view is that they pose an unnecessary risk.”
It certainly seems as if the momentum is now here to confront the issue of head shops and legal highs: if there was anyone in the country who wasn’t aware of the topic before, they will be now due to coverage over the past fortnight on Prime Time, Liveline and The Last Word.
But as the debate about legislation rages on, a key question keeps getting overlooked: why are young people in Ireland continually looking for the kind of exhilarating buzz and high provided by legal drugs (and that can, and should, include alcohol)? Is it something particular to us as a nation?
Shane Dunphy is a child protection worker (and Irish Independent columnist) who has extensive experience in dealing with young people and drugs. “Having a good time used to be something that required you to be some way active: you went out and did something,” Dunphy explains. “You thought up of ways to entertain yourself and make yourself feel good.
“However, now we live in a world where having a good time is something that’s supposed to be passive: you sit down, play a games console, you watch a DVD or you take a pill, you smoke something, or you snort something. People don’t want to invest in having a good time; they want it to happen to them. To this younger generation, life isn’t something they do; life is something that is done to them. It’s that mentality that drives things like the demand for legal highs.
“I think this is a universal cultural experience, and not especially unique to Ireland. A lot of young people have intellectualised this, and can argue pretty firmly about why they consume what they consume. Legal highs are a way around laws set by what they see as the ‘Establishment’, and these places are directly marketing themselves at young people who think, ‘What’s the harm in this?’
Head shops have been open in Ireland for the best part of a decade. There are currently some 30 different outlets in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, Portlaoise, Kildare and Mullingar, amongst other places, having experienced something of a boom in the last 3-4 years.
And why wouldn’t there be a mushrooming of business when Irish Head Shop (HIS) Enterprises, which has an outlet in Dublin’s Temple Bar as well as several other locations, last year reported a profit of e1.68m? Head shops have proved to be a headache for legislators and anti-drug campaigners, because the drugs legally on sale in these shops are designed to give the same effects as cocaine, Ecstasy, LSD and hash. At the same time, as one head shop owner who declined to be named says, “we’re actively encouraging people not to break the law”.
Last week, I opted to check out one head shop in Dublin city centre to get some sense of how they operate. It’s a quiet midweek afternoon, and similar to other retail outlets, a young customer is returning a faulty product that he wants repaired - in this case it’s a hydroponic lamp (for growing certain plant life indoors). Display cases show off a range of hookah pipes, grinders and bongs.
There’s a rack of t-shirts for sale, and a shelf of books on New Age and drug-related topics. Chilled-out music pipes out of the sound system, and three customers - a man in his 30s and two women in their 20s - are looking around for their product of choice.
I approach a staff member, saying that I’m looking for a herbal alternative to hash. The assistant is knowledgeable and helpful, and suggests a resin costing e25 that’s become a big seller over the past year (according to the packaging, it has been used “for millennia in Shamanic rituals).
Meanwhile, a friend who has accompanied me asks about pills. They talk through the effect my friend is looking for (trippy, high energy and so on), and the assistant recommends two ‘smiley’ pills (costing e10 - roughly the same cost as their illegal equivalent) that are “empathetic to the feel from Ecstasy”.
Notably, the assistant seems to size me up pretty quickly. I had never even been in one of these shops before, and he can tell that I’m green. He spends time explaining to me how to take the resin safely, and in what quantities.
This gets to the heart of the problem with head shops: there is little or no regulation, meaning that there is an ongoing health and safety issue regarding their products. In 2006, Health Minister Mary Harney banned the sale of magic mushrooms in head shops in response to the death of a young man, Colm Hodkinson, the year beforehand who had taken mushrooms at a party. Colm’s brother, Paul, has since become a vocal opponent of headshops, and is running an online campaign on Facebook entitled ‘Petition Against Headshops in Ireland’ that now has almost 1,300 supporters.
Last March, the drug benzylpiperazine (BZP) - a key ingredient in certain ‘Party Pills’ - was declared illegal in this country. Minister of State Curran is looking to extend the ban on other substances with legislation akin to new laws in the UK that prohibits GBL (Gamma butyrolactone, which mimics the date rape drug GHB) and chemicals sprayed on herbal smoking products.
The Minister's comments this week about head shops chime perfectly with the long-time views held by medical experts who work in the field of drug management and rehabilitation. “They’re a real problem for us,” says Dr Brion Sweeney, consultant psychiatrist with the Drug Treatment Centre Board (DTCB).
“Yes, they are legal, but they breach the spirit of the law. Authorities can’t act against these drugs, and yet they can potentially cause some very serious problems for people. We are seeing patients presenting with problems from amphetamine-type substances that keep people awake and reduce their dietary intake. For some people who have grown dependent on them, it can become almost impossible to stop.”
Dr Sweeney says that head shops have grown in popularity over the last few years because they appeal to three distinct categories of customer. “They’re an option for drug users who don’t want substances to be detected in urine tests. Then there are the people who prefer to go the legal route to get high, and lastly young people who are not connected to drug networks, and maybe don’t want to be.
“We’re not fully clear on the extent of the use of these drugs, but our reports from clinics, needle exchanges and outreach workers indicate that there is considerable usage around the country.”
The key matter in the debate, according to Dr Sweeney, is that nobody, from the head shop salesperson to the medical community (at present), truly knows for sure what exactly these substances are comprised of. “I can’t see how head shops can give advice to customers about the safe way to take these drugs when they can’t identify what’s in them,” he says.
“There are very complex laboratory systems needed to identify certain substances in these drugs, and we are behind in that sense. But while we’re confining ourselves to defining the substance chemically, we’re open to being outflanked by the “chemists” who make these drugs.
“We banned BZP last year, but all they have to do is slightly alter the chemical structure of the compound and then it becomes legal again, and it will have very similar effects. In the US, the law has taken a more broad-stroke approach to this matter. For example, they’ve banned Ecstasy or substances that give an Ecstasy-like effect. That gives a broader remit to prosecute.”
Marie (not her real name) is a 29-year-old accountant, who has experimented with both legal highs and the real thing. She has been a regular customer in head shops around Dublin for the last six years. “When I first started going to the shops, I’d go in and just describe the feeling I was looking for,” she says. “They have substitutes for just about everything.
“I would usually get Party Pills. They don’t have BZP in them anymore, but there’s some other chemical used now instead. As for the type of pill I get, it depends on whether I want to be chatty, or take something high energy for lots of dancing, or something that’s going to keep me on a high for hours.
“I’ve also tried Smoke and Spice, which both give a marijuana effect, as well as Salvia, a smoke hallucinogen similar to LSD. Salvia is grown naturally, but it’s one of the strongest herbs in the world. People have gone on really mad trips, but they usually only last a few minutes.”
Marie says that she uses head shops “only as a last-resort”. “If we had a big party coming up and we wanted to take some pills, and couldn’t get our hands on real ones, then we’d go to a head shop,” she explains.
So how does she compare the experience of taking these legal drugs to the illegal ones? “The pills from head shops are definitely very chemically,” she replies. “The big difference is that they don’t give the same high; there’s no euphoria basically. Sometimes I think I’d be better off taking the real thing; at least that way I know what I’m going to get.”
What does she mean by that? “Most of these legal pills are laced with caffeine,” she answers. “You mightn’t sleep for two days. Your body is physically tired, but your mind just won’t shut down. I’ve had bad kidney infections because I get really dehydrated on nights out. Personally, it’s taken my body longer to recover from taking legal drugs than the real thing.
“The thing is that people keep taking the pills on a night out because they’re not reaching that high, that euphoria. I think people expect to get something else from it, especially if they’re coming from taking the real pills. They’re not the same, but many still substitute with them.”