Home > Systematic review of media coverage on NPS in Ireland, 2000–2010.

Dillon, Lucy (2021) Systematic review of media coverage on NPS in Ireland, 2000–2010. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 79, Autumn 2021, pp. 25-26.

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In 2010, new psychoactive substances (NPS) were the subject of two pieces of legislation in Ireland.1,2 The first (enacted in May 2010) expanded the list of substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977−1984 to include over 100 NPS.1 The second, the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 (enacted in August 2010), covered the sale of substances by virtue of their psychoactive properties. It was aimed at vendors of NPS and effectively made it an offence to sell a psychoactive substance.2 A 2021 paper by Windle and Murphy reports on a systematic review of Irish media articles, entitled ‘How a moral panic influenced the world’s first blanket ban on new psychoactive substances’.3


Previous studies have found positive impacts of the legislation for public health.4,5,6 Windle and Murphy’s study was not designed to evaluate the Acts or their impact on the NPS market, rather it set out to trace the ‘historical processes whereby attitudes towards heads shops shifted from one of toleration to the passing of this tough new law’ (p. 1). The authors carried out a qualitative and quantitative review of media coverage of headshops in Ireland published between 2000 and 2010 (n=338).


The authors argue that analysis of the media coverage of headshops over the period demonstrates that Ireland experienced a ‘moral panic’ about headshops, which at least in part led to the 2010 Act. Based on previous national and international research, they frame their findings around a moral panic theory. Four timeframes are identified:

  • 2000–2007 (6 articles): Headshops first opened in Ireland in the early 2000s selling cannabis paraphernalia. They were only mentioned in the media sporadically and most of the articles published between 2004 and 2007 viewed them as harmless. However, once they started to sell NPS in 2007 a ‘trickle of condemnation began’ (p. 3).3 
  • 2008 (19 articles): Coverage of headshops was again sporadic in 2008 and tended to focus on the NPS benzylpiperazine (BZP) and its scheduling as a controlled substance in early 2009. Discussion of the negative impact of NPS on young people’s health and wellbeing also began to be discussed. 
  • 2009 (27 articles): Media interest increased in 2009 but continued to be at a relatively low level. The language used to describe headshops was ‘relatively timid’, although isolated incidents of them being described as a threat by stakeholders occurred. This is what the authors describe as a ‘core feature of moral panic language’ (p. 4). 
  • 2010 (286 articles): 2010 was when the authors argue the moral panic ensued. Articles on headshops and their supply of NPS were numerous and appeared regularly across local and national newspapers. They attracted high-level political attention as well as that from other stakeholders, including medical experts. The authors argue that the language used in the articles about NPS became gradually more stringent and sensationalist during the year and were characterised by methods such as ‘panic messages’ that fed into a moral panic. Articles linked NPS to violent crime and reported that headshops were selling to vulnerable people, especially young people. The narrative identified NPS and the headshops as the ‘folk devils’, where young people were depicted as victims. The year 2010 also saw peaceful and more violent protests organised by a variety of people, including drug dealers. All of this culminated in the State response of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010. 


The authors are keen to note that while they make the case that analysis of media coverage provides evidence of a moral panic in Ireland over the headshops, they are not arguing that the State’s response was disproportionate. Indeed, they perceive the closure of the headshops as having been inevitable, given the nature of drug policy in Ireland. However, they consider that the moral panic may have resulted in more stringent legislation being passed more quickly than may otherwise have been the case.

1   Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Regulations 2010 (SI No. 200/2010). Available online at:

2   Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010. Available online at:

3   Windle J and Murphy P (2021) How a moral panic influenced the world’s first blanket ban on new psychoactive substances. Drugs Educ Prev Pol, Early online. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/34014/

4   Previous articles in Drugnet Ireland have described the findings of studies which have shown how the legislation and consequent closure of the headshops were associated with a positive public health impact, for example: Dillon L (2017) Headshop legislation and changes in national addiction treatment data. Drugnet Ireland, 62 (Summer): 13–14. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27740/

5   Smyth BP, Lyons S and Cullen W (2017) Decline in new psychoactive substance use disorders following legislation targeting headshops: evidence from national addiction treatment data. Drug Alcohol Rev, 36(5): 609–617. http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27172/

6   Smyth BP, Daly A, Elmusharaf K, McDonald C, Clarke M, Craig S, et al. (2020) Legislation targeting head shops selling new psychoactive substances and changes in drug-related psychiatric admissions: a national database study. Early Interv Psychiatry, 14(1): 53–60. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/30436/

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
New psychoactive substance
Intervention Type
Screening / Assessment
Issue Title
Issue 79, Autumn 2021
December 2021
Page Range
pp. 25-26
Health Research Board
Issue 79, Autumn 2021

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