Thursday, 11 March 2010
Head Shops: Statements (Resumed)
Feargal Quinn (Independent)
It has been interesting to listen to the contributions of Senators McFadden and Glynn, and events in Sligo last night clearly are of great concern. I must admit that as I did not know a great deal about head shops, I have investigated the subject to learn something. I apologise if I stick to some of the information about which I had no personal experience. For example, I have just learned about legal highs. I gather that since studying the issue, the Minister of State now knows a lot more than did he or any Member previously. Salvia is the name of one product that causes hallucinations and which often is on sale as "potpourri". Possession and sale of salvia has been banned in various countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Sweden. A person needs a doctor's prescription to use it in Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Norway, while Spain and Russia also ban its sale. Another substance, JWH, is an active ingredient that is considered addictive and has been banned in at least four European countries, namely, Germany, Austria, Netherlands and Switzerland. Another substance is mephedrone, also known as "bubbles" or "meow meow". The substance is often advertised as plant food or bath salts, which surprised me. The drug, which comes in powder or pill form, is banned in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Israel and Sweden and is restricted in both the United States and Germany. Doves, which are pills that according to experts contain certain properties that are similar to ecstasy, are packaged as plant food - I did not understand the reason but do now - and are advertised as encouraging healthy growth and strong root development. Moreover, Dr. John P. Thompson, who is a clinical pharmacologist at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, has stated that doves are in the same family of drugs as ecstasy.
We are dealing with a situation in which there is a lack of scientific research into the effect of such so-called legal highs. However, it is known that the results of taking such drugs are often unpredictable and there have been a number of deaths linked to drugs bought in head shops. Such drugs are often taken in conjunction with alcohol, which increases the risk of serious harm. There is an argument to the effect that such drugs are merely drug substitutes but by that logic, the Government should ban cough syrups, glues and other material which could be used as drug substitutes. Consequently, I am unsure how this problem should be solved or resolved.
However, the effect of such drugs has been increasingly apparent in recent months. I read of a story from Scotland in which the police have issued a warning about the use of legal highs following the death of a woman in Dunfermline. The 49 year old is thought to have died after taking mephedrone, which also is known as "bubbles". The drug has also been linked to two deaths in Sweden and a number of other deaths in Europe. Amazingly, the substance is often advertised as plant food or bath salts. As I noted, the drug, which comes in powder or pill form, is banned or restricted in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Israel, Sweden, the United States and Germany. A group of Scottish psychiatrists has called for a ban on mephedrone because, according to them, it can cause hallucinations and psychosis. After researching some of its effects, they believe that mephedrone has the potential to cause similar physical and psychiatric complications as illegal drugs. In their opinion, there is an urgent need for the UK Government's legislation to reclassify mephedrone as an illegal substance. Their findings should be taken on board.
It is interesting that Cyprus is discussing a ban on so-called legal highs. A proposal is due to be approved to ban six of the most common active ingredients in so-called legal highs being sold there. When we legislate on these legal highs, a mechanism to counter these drugs, if they are dangerous, will be strongly required. Part of the purpose of the current initiative in Cyprus, according to the director of its State General Laboratory, is to put in place a rapid mechanism whereby new active ingredients can be banned so as to protect the island's youth and make things difficult for suppliers. The more I read on this matter, the more I discover how difficult it will be to handle. I do not envy the Minister of State's responsibility for finding a way around it. The Cypriot health Minister has stated that active ingredients in legal highs analysed by Cyprus's state laboratories will be added to the list of banned substances.
We must remember that one of the greatest legislative problems we face in dealing with the relatively new prevalence of legal highs is that, once one range of substances is legislated against, producers simply introduce a new range of substances with different ingredients. We need a mechanism through which it does not take months or years to examine new active ingredients. They should be analysed quickly in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the supplier. Otherwise, the supplier will move on.
We must also consider whether a ban will work. Last December, the UK banned a number of mind-altering drugs as a result of health fears. I am a little afraid to give any names out, as they could be of help to someone, but some substances, including GBL and BZP, became class C drugs, with a possible two-year jail sentence for possession. However, a BBC investigation in January found that many such drugs are still readily available in shops across the UK. They have a tendency to change name, a clever move, or move under the counter. A ban will not be a fix-all. It must also be remembered that, when magic mushrooms were banned in 2006, it reportedly resulted in users moving on to other substances.
A new legal high posing problems in the US is called K2. It is also referred to as JWH-018, "fake weed" and "spice". It is a new substance, smoked as a recreational drug, that claims to be marijuana-esque but poses more serious health concerns from seizures to life-threatening hallucinations and cardiovascular effects. The states of Kansas and Missouri are already moving to outlaw K2. This case demonstrates how quickly new drugs are pushed onto the market. Will K2 become available in Ireland or is it already available by another name and will we be debating its banning in the coming months? Will we then be discussing K3, K4 and K5? I imagine this is what the drug pushers will do. It is not an easy task to monitor the situation.
I noticed a story from San Francisco whereby a local community was worried about head shops. Of particular concern was a shop selling drugs paraphernalia, an issue mentioned by Senator McFadden, that could be used for illegal drugs. What are drugs paraphernalia? They include hand-held scales that could be used for weighing illegal drugs. We must examine this aspect as well. I do not know whether such paraphernalia are being sold in Ireland, but I would not be surprised. I would be against them being sold, as there is a real danger that they may encourage people to move on to harder or more hazardous drugs.
We must also take action against those head shops that are reportedly staying open until 4 a.m. I gather that the Dublin head shop referred to has a hatch through which one can be served. This does not seem to be logical, given that off-licences have much stricter rules on opening hours. Along with pubs, they must close earlier than 4 a.m. If we are to tackle this problem, I welcome the moves to introduce strict regulations and licensing laws for the premises of head shops as opposed to depending solely on banning the products they sell. However, there is no easy answer.
This debate is necessary and I am glad we have discussed the matter over two days. There are some obvious active ingredients in such drugs that must be banned. They can be banned quickly and will be banned shortly because they pose a real risk to health. However, we cannot let the situation be purely political and turn into a banning frenzy. I have touched on some of the difficulties in this regard. We need sound scientific evidence. Britain has just launched the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, ISCD. One of its first priorities will be to investigate legal highs. Such evidence must be heeded so that our decisions are made rationally and are not unduly influenced by the current media frenzy.
I am pleased this matter is getting attention, as there are reasons for that being the case. Many citizens, not just parents, are concerned about what is occurring. I am pleased the Minister of State is showing such an interest and that he and his team are taking this issue to heart. I am not sure what the answer is, but I wish him every success.