Home > Conference on psychoactive drugs sold in head shops and online.

Long, Jean (2010) Conference on psychoactive drugs sold in head shops and online. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 33, Spring 2010, pp. 1-3.

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 Mr John Curran TD, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, opened a national conference on ‘legal highs’ organised by the regional drugs task forces on 26 January in Mullingar. Minister Curran said that he had expressed concerns about the sale of legal highs and their possible health hazards on numerous occasions in the last year. He has asked the Minister for Health and Children, who has responsibility in relation to the importation, exportation, production, supply and possession of a range of named narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances under the Misuse of Drugs Acts, 'to ensure that every effort is made to expedite the response to this issue through the early control of substances under that Act'. He has also asked the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to examine issues relating to insurance and consumer protection.  

Dr Jean Long of the Health Research Board presented a review of the availability of psychoactive drugs in head shops and on line across Europe. She said that more than 90 new psychoactive substances had been reported through the EMCDDA’s early-warning system since its establishment in 1997. Until recently, phenethylamines and tryptamines accounted for a large proportion of notifications to the EMCDDA. However, since 2004, a much more diverse range of substances has become available; among these are numerous piperazine compounds, cathinone derivatives and Spice products, as well as a heterogeneous mix of other substances.
Dr Long reported that all countries in the EU had controlled the use of BZP, that eight countries had introduced controls on the use of synthetic cannabinoids (found in Spice), and that many countries were at present examining the issues pertaining to cathinone derivatives. She noted that there were reports that drug users were injecting some of the cathinone derivatives, which can lead to local infections, blood-borne viral infections and deep venous thrombosis. One of the cathinone derivatives was implicated in two deaths in Sweden. Laboratories across Europe reported that the ingredients listed on the packaging of head shop products did not always match the ingredients found on forensic analysis, and that it was difficult to advise people about the use of such drugs when their exact chemical contents were not known. Some of the products contained synthetic rather than herbal substances.  
Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, presented some of the known and probable health-related harms associated with psychoactive drugs sold in head shops. He said that 7% of young people attending adolescent addiction services in the south west of Dublin were using head-shop drugs as part of a polydrug cocktail. Dr Smyth reported that these drugs may become another gateway drug, alongside alcohol and tobacco. He presented eight cases of individuals who had experienced adverse effects of head shop products, such as anxiety, excessive aggression, paranoia, psychosis and hallucinations. A small number of these individuals had a previous history of mental illness. He said that it is likely that these drugs exacerbate mental illness and that they were likely to negatively affect brain development in adolescents. He made the point that there were no quality control measures on the production, distribution or sale of these substances, and that, in the instances of adverse reactions, no one was accountable.
Mr Noel O’Connor of Merchants Quay Ireland spoke of the difficulty in developing harm-reduction strategies to deal with legal highs because the contents of each drug were not known or guaranteed. The substances were not rigorously tested in a controlled environment prior to selling them to the public. The ingredients were unfamiliar to the general population and it was difficult to find information on the products.
Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, presented an overview of the products available in head shops, their ingredients and their effects. He said that it was common for head shops to use the Latin name of plants and chemicals in their list of ingredients. He said that a number of plants were used as stimulants and that there were many strong caffeine-based products on the market. In addition, he noted that many head-shop drugs contained piperine, the main chemical in black pepper, which increases the ability of the body to absorb the drugs.
Dr Corrigan's description of the main psychoactive drugs sold in head shops in Ireland is summarised below:
  • Ephedrine, which is chemically similar to amphetamine, is available in head shops in the form of Sida cordifolia, which is not controlled in Ireland.  Two other forms of the drug, Ma Hung and synthetic ephedrine, are available in Ireland only on medical prescription dispensed by a pharmacist. The producers of one product containing Sida cordifolia state on the packaging that they take no responsibility for any consequences associated with its use. Chemically similar to amphetamine, ephedrine can induce dependence, psychosis, high blood pressure and increased heart rate.
  • Morning glory (Ipomoea) and Hawaiian baby woodrose (Argyreia nervosa) are listed as ingredients in a number of head-shop products that may be labelled 'not for human consumption'. Both plants contain LSA (lysergic acid amide), a relative of LSD. The side effects of LSA and related chemicals include: apathy, tiredness, decreased psychomotor activity and feelings of unreality. As a form of lysergamide, LSA is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
  • Salvia divinorum (divine mint) contains chemicals called salvinorins that have a potency similar to that of LSD. Its use can lead to euphoria, feelings of levitation, out-of-body experience and, at high doses, uncontrolled delirium. The duration of its effects is short and the come-down is quick and therefore severe. It can induce mental health symptoms such as paranoia and derealisation. 
  • Three types of hallucinogenic cacti containing mescaline are sold in head shops. Their common names are peyote, San Pedro and Peruvian torch. Mescaline from peyote induces hallucinations as well as nausea and vomiting. 
  • Kratom, which contains mitragynine (an opioid agonist), is a leaf chewed in south-east Asia as a stimulant at low doses and as a painkiller or sedative at higher doses. It can cause constipation, weight loss, dependence, psychosis and withdrawal symptoms. It is not controlled in Ireland.
  • Piperazines such as 1-benzylpiperazine (BZP), methylbenzylpiperazine, meta chlorophenyl-piperazine (mCPP) and 1-(4-fluorophenyl) piperazine are synthetic drugs with psychedelic and euphoric effects which mirror those of ecstasy. They are sold as an ingredient in recreational drugs known as ‘party pills’. BZP was banned in Europe in March 2008 and in Ireland in March 2009. Other forms of piperazine are not controlled in Ireland. BZP can lead to hyperthermia, high blood pressure, fast pulse, and convulsions. 
  • Spice products are largely a mix of innocuous herbs, but six synthetic cannabinoids have been detected in the various spice products sold across Europe. Synthetic cannabinoids are more potent than the main psychoactive compound (THC) in natural cannabis, and do not contain the anti-psychotic substances found in natural cannabis. They may therefore lead to a higher incidence of psychosis associated with cannabinoid use. There is also potential for dependence. These products have been banned in eight countries across Europe.
  • Cathinone is a naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant, and cathinones are a group of drugs related to amphetamine compounds Methcathinone, methylmeth-cathinone (mephedrone) and methedrone, derivatives of cathinone, are sold as 'legal highs' online and in head shops in Ireland and across Europe under a variety of names, such as MCAT, Snow, Charge. Some of these products are sold as bath salts or plant food. The contents listed on the package may contain the word 'ketones'. These compounds are advertised as a replacement for ‘Charlie’ (cocaine). Some users have reported injecting the compounds. The use of these drugs can induce anxiety and paranoia. Reports say that their use can become compulsive and can create a state of psychological dependence. Mephedrone was linked to two deaths in Sweden in 2008.
Podcasts of the presentations given at the conference are available at http://drugs.ie/
Department of Health and Children statement in relation to legislation to be made under  Misuse of Drugs Act 1977
The Government agreed at its meeting on 2 March 2010 to the commencement of a notification process under Directive 98/34/EC (the 'Technical Standards' Directive) as amended by Directive 98/48/EC, of the Government’s intention to make a Declaration Order under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 declaring certain substances, products and preparations to be controlled drugs for the purposes of the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 and 1984.

The substances concerned include a range of products sold in so-called ‘head shops’ including:
  • synthetic cannabinoids (for example, Spice products)
  • benzylpiperazine (BZP) derivatives
  • mephedrone, methylone and related cathinones
  • GBL and 1,4 BD
In addition, the Declaration Order to be made under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 will include Ketamine and Tapentadol which are substances that have legitimate uses as medicines but which can be subject to misuse. The Declaration Order will also cover certain narcotic and psychotropic substances which Ireland is obliged to bring under control in order to comply with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

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