Home > Legislation on new psychoactive substances.

Connolly, Johnny (2014) Legislation on new psychoactive substances. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 51, Autumn 2014, p. 11.

PDF (Drugnet Ireland 51)

A journal article by Kavanagh and Power examines the impact of legislative and law enforcement responses to the emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) and so-called ‘head shops’ in recent years in Ireland.1 In particular, the article considers how controls in this area have adversely impacted on academic research on NPS. 

In relation to the ‘legal highs’ phenomenon, on 11 May 2010 the government made the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 (Controlled Drugs) (Declaration) Order 2010, declaring a range of ‘legal highs’ to be controlled drugs. To give effect to this decision, on the same day the Minister for Health and Children signed the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Regulations 2010, the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (Amendment) Order 2010, and the Misuse of Drugs (Exemption) (Amendment) Order 2010. Under these statutory instruments, approximately 200 individual ‘legal high’ substances, which had been on sale in ‘head shops’ and which included the vast majority of products of public health concern, were declared to be controlled drugs. Following on from this, the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 (PSA) was implemented in response to the ‘head shops’ selling ‘legal highs’.2 

Following the implementation of the various statutory instruments referred to above, the authors described how the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), which analysed a number of head shop products obtained by means of test purchases,3 found that in the case of cathinone derivatives, ‘following the initial control of a selected range of compounds, the contents of retail products were quickly changed to alternative compounds not yet controlled’ (p. 2). Consequently, the authors suggest that the head shops managed to remain open contrary to the political intention behind the amendments to the misuse of drugs legislation. In its first year, however, the PSA did result in a significant reduction in the number of head shops. The authors provide an interesting perspective on why this may have occurred:

There was considerable societal concern about head shops and the owners, being ‘business people’ who saw the potential to make a quick profit, in general, complied with retail and legitimate business rules, paid taxes and preferred to operate in a licit rather than an illicit marketplace. The introduction of the PSA and public protests at legal high retail units caused unease amongst these shop operators and, along with media pressure, many shops voluntarily closed and surrendered their products for destruction. (p. 2) 

The authors also refer to a reduction between 2010 and 2012 in post-mortem blood samples testing positive for cathinone derivatives, based on toxicological analysis conducted by the State Laboratory for the Coroner Service. Furthermore, the Drug Treatment Centre Board (DTCB), which screens methadone programme patients, reported a 25% decrease in the presence of cathinone derivatives in urine samples between 2010 and 2011. 

With regard to the impact of the legislative changes on research, the authors suggest that academics involved in NPS research had to ensure that they had the appropriate licence for any substance they were investigating. As a consequence, ‘Some researchers preferred to avoid projects involving, or that might involve controlled substances’ (p. 1), with the result that ‘…with little or nothing known about their actual harm potential, numerous compounds became controlled drugs, thus discouraging academia from pursuing research due to licensing requirements’ (p. 4). In hindsight, the authors suggest that ‘it may have been prudent…to allow researchers to study such compounds by allowing them to hold small amounts (i.e. quantities smaller than typical single doses as reported anecdotally) in their university based laboratories’ (p. 4). 

Future legislative approaches in this area should, according to the authors’ analysis, recognise the potential for academics and forensic service providers to work together, something that would need to be facilitated through primary legislation. For example, with regard to the testing of suspected drug seizures, ‘forensic drug chemists are primarily interested in uniquely identifying controlled substances in case samples rather than impurity or by-product profiling. However, the latter is an important intelligence-gathering tool, which can be used to link batches of drugs and provide a valuable insight into manufacturing and supply trends’ (p. 6). Work of this type is more research oriented and, it is suggested, ‘academics have more freedom and time to think outside the box and are not shackled by accreditation protocols or the seemingly ever-increasing workloads that forensic service providers continually face’ (p. 6). 

In conclusion, the authors call for a review of the current legislative framework so that it can accommodate academic input and allow for more targeted research, although they acknowledge that any relationship between academics and forensic science is rendered challenging by virtue of the fact that some of the work of the latter might involve case samples that are sub judice. Notwithstanding this issue, they argue that legislation should ‘provide better mechanism for academia and forensic service providers to work together and share data so that more informed policy decisions can be made’ (p. 6). 

1 Kavanagh P and Power J D (2014) New psychoactive substances legislation in Ireland – perspectives from academia. Drug testing and analysis 6 (7-8): 884–891

2 For reviews of these legislative initiatives, see Long J (2010) Further update on psychoactive substances sold in head shops and on line. Drugnet Ireland (35): 15–16, and Connolly J (2012) Impact of legislation to control head shops. Drugnet Ireland (40): 29.

3 The Garda National Drug Unit contains a Test Purchasing unit, which regularly conducts drug purchases with street level dealers in order to secure evidence against the drug dealer for the purpose of prosecution. The Garda members’ true identity is disguised or concealed.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
New psychoactive substance
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 51, Autumn 2014
October 2014
Page Range
p. 11
Health Research Board
Issue 51, Autumn 2014

Repository Staff Only: item control page