Home > Report on new psychoactive substances and the outlets supplying them.

Long, Jean and Connolly, Johnny (2011) Report on new psychoactive substances and the outlets supplying them. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 39, Autumn 2011, pp. 9-10.

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The NACD commissioned a study of new psychoactive substances and the outlets supplying them, which was completed by a research team from the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)  and published in June 2011.1 

The study comprised several components:
·         Chemical analysis of 49 new psychoactive substances sold in head shops or online
·         Review of the availability of head shop products in retail outlets and via online sales
·         Users’ reported use and effects of such substances
·         Risks associated with the use of such substances
·         Legal responses to control the availability of such substances.
Analyses of the products bought in head shops and online detected the emergence of five new substances following the changes introduced by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 (Controlled Drugs) (Declaration) Order of May 2010, namely: dimethylcathinone, naphyrone, fluorotropacocaine, desoxypipradol and dimethylamylamine. ‘A comparison of substances identified before and after the May 2010 Order indicates that suppliers moved quickly to replace controlled substances with new uncontrolled substances’ (p.74). Five products bought online as part of the study all contained controlled substances, including mephedrone. This led the authors to conclude that ‘head shops may respond to local control measures more quickly than international online suppliers’ (p.74). The analysis also found a lack of consistency between the advertised content and the actual content of products, and, over time, between products with the same name or packaging. These findings, according to the authors, ‘have implications for consumers, including the potential for misuse, adverse reactions and possible overdose’ (p.74).
The authors observe that as a consequence of the May 2010 Order and the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 which came into effect on 23 August 2010, the vast majority of head shops had closed. Ten to twelve remained opened in November 2010, ‘selling pipes, bongs and clothing. None are selling psychoactive substances and only one…was observed to have hydroponic equipment on display’ (p.75).
The authors did an anonymous online survey, using a self-completed questionnaire, to identify what new psychoactive substances were used, how and in what contexts they were used and what effects were experienced. The questionnaire had 51 items covering demographics, alcohol and tobacco use, use of powders, party pills, liquid highs, smoking blends and ethnobotanicals. Participants were recruited over a two-week period through print and online media, personal contacts and DIT staff and student listings. Of the 333 survey entries completed, four were excluded as invalid. The authors stress that the sample was not representative of the general population and that findings could not be extrapolated beyond this survey.
The 329 respondents ranged in age from 16 to 58 years, with an average age of 25 years. Sixty-seven per cent were men, 59% lived in Dublin, 38% lived elsewhere in Ireland and 3% lived outside of Ireland. Just over half (51%) lived with their parents, 18% lived with a spouse or partner, 14% lived with friends and 10% lived alone. The majority (65%) were students, 26% were working or self-employed and 6% were receiving a state benefit. Almost all (98%) were educated to leaving certificate or above. Among the 261 (79%) respondents who had obtained a new psychoactive substance, the main sources were: head shops (78%), friends (66%), acquaintances (23%), online (17%) and/or dealers (15%). Seven had obtained new psychoactive substances through a home delivery service. Sixty-five per cent had access to a head shop within five kilometres of their home.
Fifty-seven per cent (186/329) of the sample had used one or more psychoactive powders at some time, 21% (68/329) in the month prior to the survey. Mephedrone was the most common powder used; 66% of respondents had tried it. Methylone was used by 10% of respondents. The most common methods of consumption were snorting (86%), and rubbing it on gums or the inside of the mouth (40%). Fifty-eight per cent consumed between 0.1 gram and 1 gram of powder in a typical session. Respondents reported a high frequency of undesirable (though not always unexpected) effects, including palpitations (68%), chest pain (17%), breathing difficulties (20%), anxiety (40%), paranoia (38%), aggression (19%), memory blackout (43%) and fainting or collapse (5%). Users also experienced come-down effects, including insomnia (74%) and low mood or depression (72%).
Forty-eight per cent (159/329) of the sample had used one or more psychoactive party pills or liquid highs at some time, 12% (38/329) in the month prior to the survey. BZP was the most common party pill used; 37% of respondents had tried it. The most common methods of consuming a party pill were swallowing it whole (74%), snorting its contents (15%) and bombing it (13%). Two pills was the most common number taken in a typical session (night). Respondents reported a high number of undesirable effects, including palpitations (61%), chest pain (16%), breathing difficulties (11%), anxiety (39%), paranoia (36%), aggression (13%), memory blackout (28%) and fainting or collapse (6%). Users also experienced come-down effects, including insomnia (82%) and depression (70%).
Only a small number of respondents who used powders, party pills or liquid highs sought formal medical assistance; for example, four attended a general practitioner, three attended an emergency department and seven attended a mental health professional.
Powders, pills and liquid highs were most commonly consumed with friends (96%) and acquaintances (30%) and rarely with family (9%). They were consumed most often on Friday and Saturday nights and most often at parties (83%), but also at friends’ homes, festivals and clubs.
Sixty per cent (197/329) of the sample had used one or more psychoactive smoking blends at some time, 15% (49/329) in the month prior to the survey. Smoke XXX (74%) was the most common blend used, followed closely by Spice (66%).
Thirty-eight per cent (126/329) of the sample had used one or more psychoactive ethnobotanicals at some point in their life. Salvia divinorum (61%) was by far the most common plant used.  
The authors report a rapid and marked decrease in the number of head shops nationwide as a result of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, and speculate on future effects of the Act:
·                       It is likely that there will be a concomitant decrease in the use of psychoactive substances by casual, young and first-time users, and an associated decrease in presentations to hospital emergency departments.
·                       Habitual users who were attracted by the legality and easy availability of head shop products are likely to return to ‘traditional’ illegal substances.
·                       A proportion of head shops’ customer base will take their business online, where chat rooms and blogs will keep them updated with new products, perceived effects, and recommended sources and avenues of delivery. (p.79)
Among the recommendations made in various sections of this report are those summarised below.
·         Existing models of online monitoring to curtail online trading are examined, such as the model of co-operation between the Irish Medicines Board and the Customs authorities to monitor the sale of counterfeit medicines and other psychoactive substances.
·         The Department of Health monitors the emergence of new head shop products and moves speedily to control their use.
·         A centralised national database to collect data from emergency departments on alcohol and other drug use is developed and managed by an appropriate agency. This would facilitate the verification of the harm being caused by existing and newly emerging drugs.
·         The HSE National Drugs Awareness Campaign takes account of users’ experiences of new psychoactive drugs. Also, online campaigns such as drugs.ie should highlight the dangers of new psychoactive drugs as identified in this report.
·         Ireland should review the proposed legislation in the UK which would allow the temporary banning of new psychoactive substances while they are being fully assessed for their harmful effects.
1. Kelleher C, Christie R, Lalor K, Fox J, Bowden M and O’Donnell C (2011) An overview of psychoactive substances and outlets supplying them. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs.  www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15390
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
New psychoactive substance
Issue Title
Issue 39, Autumn 2011
Page Range
pp. 9-10
Health Research Board
Issue 39, Autumn 2011
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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