Head Shops

Newstalk 106 Radio Discussion on subject on Saturday night 6th March 2010.

In the chair Dill Wickremasinghe on Global Village with Bill Tormey, Councillor Dermot Lacey Lab, Michael Mulcahy TD FF, Daithi Doolan of City wide anti-drugs campaign, Councillor Ming Flanagan from Roscommon, and Phyllis Harris of Beechfield Estate Residents Association from Clonee, Dublin 15. The audiotape is available on the Newstalk website.

Bill’s opinion on this issue

The use of mind altering substances is not recommended but that does not mean that since time immemorial, humans have been intoxicating themselves for pleasure and to relieve life’s vicissitudes. It has long been obvious that the “War on Drugs” is lost worldwide and the consequences have encouraged a world wide explosion of organised violent criminality to exploit the drugs black market.

In response many countries have legalised the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, the last one being Mexico last autumn. I agree with this attitude and have said so in public and in print for more than 20 years. But of course, “drugs” are a great vote getter for politicians who are most vociferous and talk up the biggest scare stories. They are in touch with their constituents and are doing-something about drugs. I prefer the more thought out response of people like Tony Geoghegan of the Merchants Quay project. The drugs task forces in local areas should be a priority for funding even in this recession because heroin abuse is, in the main, a low-income area addiction funded by the proceeds of crime.

My view is that drug use is a balance between adult autonomy and societal risk. The state does not always know best. Medicine is about harm reduction.

I am not certain what is the chemistry and pharmacology of the various compounds sold in 100 plus head shops in Ireland right now. Nobody is.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the possession and sale of ketamine, synthetic cannabinoids or so-called spice products, BZP benzypiperazine derivatives, methylone and related cathinones, GBL and 1,4BD, tapentadol will be illegal from June 2010.  The popular names banned include “magic”, “snow”, “blow”, and BZP liquid ecstasy

When BZP is banned, it is simply going to appear in the black market and be mixed with whatever. It appears to be a relatively safe compound with 26 milllion BZP pills sold in New Zealand without fatality. When the New Zealand government eventually banned the drug, it was classified as a Class D drug and recognised as low risk. According to the BBC, MDMA ecstasy has dramatically reduced in the UK being replaced by BZP. Head shops owners claim that BZP has replaced the illegal MDMA and is safer – cause and effect!.

Head Shops should be regulated by planning laws, by consumer legislation, health and safety regulations and by the Irish Medicines Board under the laws of the state. An obvious issue is the claim that many of the products advertised by head shops are not for human consumption. That get-out is farcical. The Misuse of Drugs Act in Ireland allows the banning of generic chemical derivatives of drugs which is the way to deal with the synthetic chemical industry.

The HSE should take samples of products sold in these shops and have them analysed chemically as part of a public health initiative. Some of the compounds that should be looked at are synthetic cocaine like powders, salvia divinorum, mephedrone and whatever etc is.

There is anecdotal evidence of harm to some people from these products. Dr David Luke of the Mercy Hospital in Cork has alluded to about 12 cases in the past six months. He has seen patients with “head shop highs” presenting with panic, paranoia, delirium, psychosis and chest pain. I have no idea whether samples were sent to the appropriate laboratory for analysis especially of urine samples. This information was detailed in the Irish Examiner on January 18th 2010. Similarly, Dr Bobby Smyth, a child psychiatrist, in Tallaght claimed that 20% of patients at his clinics this year were referred due to problems caused by head shop products. This is up from 1% in 2008. Again I would love to see published peer reviewed evidence.

Chief Superintendent Pat Leahy’s reported comments (Irish Examiner March 6th 2010) to the Joint Policing Committee of Dublin City Council that he had informed head shops that they could be charged with reckless endangerment. “if there is any fatality or serious injury arising from their business they would be pursuing that charge”. Reckless endangerment is an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997, “ A person shall be guilty of an offence who intentionally engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of death or serious harm to another.”

Frankly, where does this begin and end. Logically, all off- licences and corner shops selling alcohol and cigarettes are similarly at risk. Alcohol can result in panic, paranoia, delirium and psychosis so where to from here. Scaremongering I would say. But after the Limerick nude calendar episode with the Health and Safety Authority, anything is possible when common sense becomes a rarity.

To get the potential profits in context, the burnt head shop in Capel Street, Dublin had €500,000 in cash under the floorboards and their head shop website had 260,000 hits.

My conclusion is that is that head shops should not be banned. They should be subjected to the normal planning laws to restrict opening hours and make sure that home deliveries are made illegal. Consumers must be presented with package information on the contents of any substances sold with likely effects listed including toxic reactions. Possession of small amounts or recreational drugs should be decriminalised as in Mexico. It is clear that a large cohort of the younger generation are only a urine screen away from being criminalised.

The soundest opinion article on the issue is written by Matt Cooper in the Irish Examiner on Friday 5th March. No ban writes Matt. He now qualifies for membership of the Coalition-for-Common-Sense.