Home > Judging prohibition.

Connolly, Johnny (2015) Judging prohibition. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 55, Autumn 2015, pp. 10-11.

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Given the growing international debate about the merits of the so-called war on drugs, ‘So prohibition can work?’ is the provocative title of a recent article which reports on a study that considered the impact of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act introduced in Ireland 2010 in response to the ‘headshop’ phenomenon.1 This legislation led to the closure of 90% of the headshops then in existence throughout Ireland.2 The study examined the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) by adolescents attending addiction treatment both before and after the introduction of the legislation. Included in the study were all adolescents entering assessment at one outpatient service, comparing the six months immediately prior to the legislation in May 2010 with the same six-month period the following year.


There were 94 treatment episodes included, and the patients had a mean age of 16.8 years. Problematic use of any NPS fell from 34% (14) of patients in the pre-legislation period to no patients after the introduction of the legislation. There was also a significant decline in recent use of any NPS (82% vs 28%). Recent use of cocaine and amphetamines also declined, but problematic use of these drugs was unchanged. The authors concluded that the use of NPS among adolescents attending drug and alcohol treatment was substantially reduced 6­–12 months after the legislation was introduced and after most head shops had closed. Adolescents attending after the ban also showed ‘significantly lower rates of both recent use and problematic use of any NPS’ (p. 3).


In discussing their findings, the authors made the following observations: ‘…our study cannot explain why these adolescents reduced their NPS use. It seems unlikely that concerns regarding criminal sanctions acted as an important deterrent. They demonstrated ongoing use of a broad range of similarly illegal drugs after the legislative ban’ (p. 3). Highlighting the main impact of the ban, the closure of the headshop outlets, the authors make the point: ‘Looking beyond NPS, we know that availability is a key factor influencing use of other substances, such as cannabis and alcohol. …In the months following legislation 93% of the headshops closed thereby curtailing easy access to these drugs’ (p. 3).


In this respect, the study supports the contention of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and other advocates of prohibition that rates of drug use and related harms would be higher but for prohibition. However, many uncertainties remain about the long-term impact of the legislative ban. A study by Kelleher and colleagues on the legislative changes predicted that ‘the reduction in the supply of NPS will lead to displacement of drug consumption choice’, bringing with it ‘a new set of risks to customers’ (p. 141).3 In recent years, online illicit drug sales have increased and an active street market for the sale of prescription drugs, including benzodiazepines, has developed. Kelleher and colleagues also revealed a sub-group of recreational users of NPS who were not coming into contact with healthcare professionals and it is unclear how the legislation impacted on their drug consumption behaviours.


A number of commentators criticised Ireland’s legislative approach to the headshop issue. Reuter, referring to a regulatory impact analysis conducted by the Department of Justice and Equality prior to the introduction of the Act,4 stated that the approach adopted was ‘of limited conceptual sophistication’ and ultimately naïve:5 ‘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’ (p. 7).


In a similar vein, Ryall and Butler argued that, from a harm reduction perspective, the policy response was 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).6 Although the authors acknowledged ‘a degree of sophistication’ on the part of the various stakeholders at the time, including headshop owners, users, law enforcement personnel, policy advisers and the minister responsible for the National Drugs Strategy, ultimately they concluded that ‘the great Irish head shop controversy ended in a clear victory for traditional “war on drugs” values’ (p. 310).


Current plans in the UK to introduce legislation modelled on the Irish approach look set to revive the headshop controversy. Ultimately, it may also lead to further critical examination of the consequences of prohibition in general.7


  1. Smyth BP, James P, Cullen W and Darker CD (2015) "So prohibition can work?" Changes in use of novel psychoactive substances among adolescents attending a drug and alcohol treatment service following a legislative ban International Journal of Drug Policy, Early online. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24190/
  2. Connolly J (2012) Impact of legislation to control head shops Drugnet Ireland(40): 29. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/16890/
  3. 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
  4. Department of Justice and Equality (2010) Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Bill 2010: regulatory impact analysis Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15465/
  5. Reuter P (2011) Options for regulating new psychoactive drugs: a review of recent experiences London: UK Drug Policy Commission. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15458/
  6. Ryall G and Butler S (2011) The great Irish head shop controversy Drugs: education, prevention and policy (18/4): 303–311. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15360/
  7. ‘Call to halt legal highs ban based on “flawed” Irish system’ http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-33226526. See also Parliamentary submission by the UK drug-reform charity Release ‘Proposed amendments to Psychoactive Substances Bill for Committee Stage’ http://www.release.org.uk/publications/release-transforms-submission-home-affairs-select-committees-short-inquiry-psychoactive
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 55, Autumn 2015
October 2015
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 55, Autumn 2015

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