Home > Dail Eireann debate. Adjournment debate - Head shops.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Adjournment debate - Head shops. (31 Mar 2010)

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Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I congratulate the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Carey, who in another life as a Minister of State had responsibility for drugs. There is great delight that he has been given this remit once again. I met him in Granard last Thursday, when he had a conversation with a woman from Athlone who is heavily involved in this issue. 

Although head shops are a recent phenomenon, I am sure they are in every constituency in the country. In the midlands, they have sprouted up in Athlone, Mullingar and Roscommon over the past 12 months and now assume a prominent position in the lives of these towns. They are given silly names like “Phantasia” or “Health Store” to persuade people into thinking they are good shops offering healthy wares. However, they are full of what I can only describe as lethal drugs. These products are supposedly made from plants and all things wonderful in nature. I do not know what they are made from but their application is potentially injurious to young people. Despite their dangers, crowds swirl around these head shops day and night to buy whatever it is they sell. These customers are fooling themselves and their parents into believing they are buying wonderful new palliatives which will bring them deep sleep or success in examinations. However, these products are lethal.
Two weeks ago, more than 400 people attended a meeting in Athlone to discuss head shops. They are not prepared to wait three months for Europe to issue a directive and another ten months for it to enter Irish law. They want to know whether the Government can act now to bring criminal charges against those who peddle these wares. Can the Government take any action now which would bring about criminal charges on those who peddle these wares? These products are drugs. They are pure drugs from a particular source and are harmful, especially to young people. One particularly harmful product is called bath salts. One may believe one would use them to have a bath or something but one inhales them and then one becomes flaked out. I listened to people who told the stories of their young folk and teenagers. I was deeply dismayed to hear what young people are going through and what is being peddled to them from shops with titles such as “Health Store”.
The Minister could make a name for himself in his new job were he to strike at these headshops, within the law, and bring comfort, especially to parents who are very concerned about their young people because of the effects these drugs are having. I hope the Minister will not refer to a proposal of three months or six months duration because these are spreading from town to town like a disease or a plague. There is a proliferation of these shops and there are crowds of young people who believe their day is not complete if they have not visited a headshop and purchased some of these very potent materials.
Deputy Pat Carey: I thank Deputy O’Rourke for raising this issue and for her good wishes. The Deputy’s assertion is correct. When I was in this Department in 2007 and 2008, head shops were beginning to be an issue at that time. There were 26 such shops known to be in operation, primarily in Dublin. I agree with Deputy O’Rourke and others who have raised the matter on the Order of Business and I understand the matter will be raised during Question Time tomorrow as well. There is no doubt these shops are a pernicious influence. I wish to outline the measures under way at the moment and those contemplated by the Government.
I assure Deputies that I am aware of the many concerns that have been expressed in recent times regarding the activities of head shops and the new psychoactive substances, represented as legal highs, which are being sold in these outlets. The number of these outlets has increased significantly in recent times and it is estimated that there are now in excess of 100 in operation in various parts of Ireland.
While working as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, my colleague, Deputy John Curran, voiced concerns which I share. As Deputy O’Rourke mentioned, there are potential health hazards arising from the use of these products and there is a possibility that their use may act as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs, which may be more important than the first point. The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 includes two actions aimed at addressing the issues involved. Action 14 calls for the monitoring of the activities of head shops and all businesses involved in the sale of psychoactive substances, with the objective of ensuring that no illegal activity is undertaken and for appropriate steps to be taken to reform legislation in this area where it is deemed to be appropriate. Action 15 recommends that drugs-related legislation be kept under continuous review, with a particular focus on new synthetic substances and new or changed uses of psychoactive substances, against the background of EU and broader international experience and best practice.
Against the background of these actions and as provided for under the drugs strategy, the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, held several meetings with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science in recent months. He also met with the Garda Commissioner and with senior officials of various Departments and offices. Head shops and the sale of legal highs were discussed at many of these meetings and various approaches to addressing the activities of these outlets were considered and are still under review.
Through the Misuse of Drugs Act, the primary legislation through which these substances can be regulated, the Department of Health and Children is currently finalising regulations to introduce controls on a range of substances. These regulations will make the possession and sale of these substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. I stress the term “criminal sanctions”. In preparing the required regulations, that Department is consulting with the relevant authorities to ensure that any legitimate uses of the substances involved are not impinged upon. This is an issue especially in the manufacture of other products and veterinary medicine.
Meanwhile, the Government has approved the commencement of a required notification process to the EU and it is envisaged that the regulations controlling the various substances will come into effect in late June at the conclusion of the three month process involved. I assure the House the three month period will apply rather than a period of 13 months which Deputy O’Rourke suggested. Such notification is required under the relevant EU technical standards directives, because controls under the Misuse of Drugs Act involve a restriction on trade. For example, some of the products involved can be used in the manufacture of plastics and industrial solvents, and the European Medicines Agency reported in late January that one such product, mephedrone, has the potential to be used in the manufacture of some medicines. It is vital that all regulatory controls introduced meet all requirements and are fully robust to meet any legal challenges subsequently arising. The experience to date has been that as soon as one substance is banned, a single ingredient can be changed and then one must start almost all over again. We wish to try to anticipate that taking place again and avoid any possible striking down of either the legislation or regulations.
Meanwhile, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs has been asked to carry out some research in this area. In addition, the activities of head shops are being closely monitored on an ongoing basis by the Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise with a view to ensuring that no substances that are currently illegal are being sold. My Department has also been in contact with the Attorney General about a range of possible approaches to the matter and a number of issues arising in that context are being considered at senior level within an inter-departmental framework.
It is very important that we do everything possible to raise awareness about the negative effects of consuming psychoactive substances. In this regard the HSE, in association with its partners under the drugs strategy, is currently finalising a national drugs awareness campaign that will focus on psychoactive substances legally available through head shops. This campaign will be aimed primarily at 15 to 40 year olds, as well as at parents and service providers. The key message of the campaign will be that legal does not mean safe, and it will aim to raise awareness of the risks to mental and physical health associated with these substances.
National and local initiatives will be integrated under the campaign, with drugs task forces playing a key role in publicising the information in their respective communities. The upgraded www.drugs.ie website will also be promoted as a primary source of relevant and accurate information, along with the utilisation of existing HSE help and information lines. The HSE is also updating the Facts about Drugs booklet and its parent information guide to include information on psychoactive substances. An information booklet for service providers will be available in conjunction with the launch of the campaign in the coming weeks.
We are all aware of the harm caused by drug misuse to individuals, their families and their communities. This harm manifests itself in many ways, through negative health, socio-economic impacts and crime, such as the intimidation and violence often orchestrated and perpetrated by those supplying drugs in our communities. Head shops and legal highs might be regarded as a relatively new aspect of the ever-evolving issue of substance misuse in our society but I am determined to tackle the problem and to pursue all viable approaches to counter the potential threats.
I note with interest the media reports today that the owners of these shops have discussed drawing up a code of conduct for the shops. They are perfectly entitled to pursue this course of action but I can assure those same owners that the Government will be working without delay to ensure that the substances, which are of such concern to communities throughout the country, are no longer freely available and, where possible, are removed from circulation for good. Self-regulation was attempted in 2007 and 2008. It was not accepted by the Government then and I have no intention of accepting it now either. I assure Deputy O’Rourke that the issue of head shops and new psychoactive substances is of serious concern to the Government and that I will continue to work with my ministerial colleagues in tackling the problem as effectively as possible.


Vol. 706 No. 1  
Adjournment Debate - Headshops 
Wednesday, 31 March 2010

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