Home > Impact of legislation to control head shops.

Connolly, Johnny (2012) Impact of legislation to control head shops. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 40, Winter 2011, p. 29.

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The Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 was implemented in response to the emergence of ‘head shops’ selling ‘legal highs’. After the Act came into force, the vast majority of such shops were closed down. 

A number of academic articles have questioned the rationale behind the recent legislative approaches to controlling the legal high phenomenon. Reuter, in a review of international responses to new psychoactive substances, is extremely critical of the approach taken in Ireland.1 In criticising the regulatory impact analysis conducted by the Department of Justice and Equality,2which included a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed legislation, Reuter states that the approach adopted was ‘of limited conceptual sophistication’ and ultimately naïve:
Consider for example Ireland, which has been active in the field. It has published an analysis of regulatory options for head shops, which are prominent there. The assessment makes no mention of any potential adverse effects of prohibition. It identifies the dangers of not regulating and the potential gross gains of the regulatory options. The only negative aspects of regulation that are given any attention are the costs of operating the regulation. It is naïve compared to, for example, environmental regulatory analysis, which requires much more careful balancing of costs and benefits of each option. (p. 7) 
In a similar vein, Ryall and Butler set the controversy over head shops in Ireland and the resulting legislation within the framework provided by the sociological concept of ‘moral panic’.3 They describe this as a formulation of social policy whereby, in this instance, ‘the negative societal consequences of psychoactive drug use tend to be exaggerated – by the media and a range of other “moral entrepreneurs” – thereby serving to legitimate extreme policy responses which, paradoxically, may amplify the very deviance they were intended to curtail’ (p. 304). ‘Based on semi-structured interviews with some of the main stakeholders in this process and set against a background of saturation media coverage of this phenomenon, this article presents and assesses competing perspectives on the head shop issue’ (p. 303).

The authors suggest that, ‘from a conventional drug-control perspective, recent legislative measures in Ireland may be seen as representing effective cross-cutting activity between the health and criminal justice sectors. From a harm reduction perspective, however, this policy response may be seen as an example of moral panic in that media portrayals greatly exaggerated the ill effects of head shop products, in the process stoking public anger rather than encouraging rational debate’ (p. 303). Although the authors acknowledge ‘a degree of sophistication on the part of all those interviewed’ (p. 310), including head shop owners, users, law enforcement personnel, policy advisors and the minister responsible for the drug strategy at the time, ultimately they conclude that ‘the great Irish head shop controversy ended in a clear victory for traditional “war on drugs” values’ (p. 310).
The National Advisory Committee on Drugs published a study on new psychoactive substances and the outlets supplying them.4 The review, conducted between May and August 2010, sought to assess the availability and accessibility of new psychoactive substances in retail outlets throughout Ireland and online. With regard to the impact of new legislative measures, one of the conclusions reached by the authors was that ‘habitual drug users who were attracted by the legality and easy availability of head shop products are likely to return to “traditional” illegal substances’ (p. 79). This view may be borne out by results of the fourth all-Ireland general population drug prevalence survey showing a fall in ecstasy use in the last year, which may be partly explained by the proportion of young people reporting the use of new psychoactive substances sold in head shops and online (see article 'Results from third general population survey in Ireland' in this issue).
1.Reuter P (2011) Options for regulating new psychoactive drugs: a review of recent experiences. London: UK Drug Policy Commission.
2.Department of Justice and Equality (2010) Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Bill 2010: regulatory impact analysis. Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality.
3.Ryall G and Butler S (2011) The great Irish head shop controversy. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 18(4): 303–311.
4   Kelleher C, Christie R, Lalor K et al. (2011) An overview of new psychoactive substances and the outlets supplying them. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15390  
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Crime prevention, Policy
Issue Title
Issue 40, Winter 2011
January 2012
Page Range
p. 29
Health Research Board
Issue 40, Winter 2011
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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