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house of drugs

The House of Lords spent a fair bit of time this week debating Ireland's head shop laws

Hundreds of ‘legal high’ vendors face closure across Britain. Some politicians there aren’t particularly taken with Ireland’s approach to the problem.

HEAD SHOP DRUGS and, in particular, Ireland’s approach to them, were the subject of much debate in the UK Parliament’s upper house this week – as members discussed a mooted ban on synthetic drugs across Britain.

More than 450 high-street shops and online vendors of legal highs face being closed down under a blanket ban set to come in next year, the Guardian reports.

According to the paper:

The ban will cover a range of synthetic chemical substances designed to mimic traditional illegal drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy and will extend to cover nitrous oxide – laughing gas or “hippy crack” – the second most popular recreational drug in Britain.

Here at home, the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2010 led to the closure of the vast majority of head shops in Ireland – following a similar blanket ban on synthetic drugs.

It followed a surge in popularity in the substances. In the months before the ban, long queues regularly formed outside one of the most popular Dublin city centre head shops, late into the night.

Head Shops To Close Dublin's head shops close - in 2010. Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Ireland’s experience

The effect of the ban was instant – with the biggest stores immediately shutting their doors, and placing ‘closed’ signs outside. However, there’s evidence that head shop drugs are still being widely used here – despite the ban on their legal sale.

A major global drug survey, released last week, found 11.9% of people in Ireland surveyed said they had taken a ‘mystery white powder’ in the last 12 months.

More than 2,000 people here responded to the Global Drug Survey - which doesn’t take a cross-section of every demographic, but instead looks to probe trends and attitudes among people who have had some experience using drugs or alcohol.

Meanwhile, doctors and drug workers say that Mephedrone, the former head shop drug (known as ‘snow blow’) is now widely-available in Ireland.

And one habitual drug user who spoke to last week said it was “more available than what it was when the shops shut down”.

House of Lords 

Debating the planned UK ban this week, a number of members of the House of Lords questioned whether the Irish approach was the best plan to follow.

“It seems that in Ireland the closure of head shops has led to displacement to a more risky market,” Sally Hamwee (Baroness Hamwee) of the Liberal Democrats said.

“Human beings with their frailties will always be human, and that they will, as they have always done, continue to take drugs.

“In other words, there will always be a market. So how do we get to the position of “least harm”?

I suggest that we should look not just at Ireland and Poland but at states such as Oregon in the United States of America, which, in my terms at any rate, are progressive.

Last Law Lords ruling in the Lords Chamber House of Lords (file) PA WIRE PA WIRE

Molly Meacher (Baroness Meacher), a former social worker, said experts had warned “the web trade in synthetic psychoactive substances is apparently thriving in Ireland”.

“Not only has Ireland seen an increase in the use of synthetic drugs following the ban, but the banned drugs are, of course, far more dangerous today than they were before.

“They can be purchased only from illegal drug dealers or through the web. Such dealers have no interest whatever in the health of the people who buy materials from them.

They regularly mix the drugs with other agents, as we all know, including poisons that cause untold damage and, indeed, death.

Head shops, Meacher said, “want to look after their customers”.

They do not want to kill or even to harm them. They want them to come back and buy more of their delightful substances.

A number of other members also raised the impact of Ireland’s head shop closures in the course of the debate, which took place on Tuesday afternoon (full searchable transcript here).

We can expect further media reports in the UK on Ireland’s experience banning the synthetic drugs in the coming weeks. A BBC crew will be in Dublin for the next few days compiling a report on the issue.

Read: Irish recreational drug users reveal cocaine and MDMA use – and talk ‘mystery white powders’ >

Read: Just yards from the lattés and those craft beer bars … dozens upon dozens of needles >

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