THE Drugs Minister is demanding immediate action to ban 'legal highs' sold in head shops throughout Ireland.
John Curran wants the substances to be outlawed instead of regulated, a conference heard yesterday.
Despite the recession, the number of head shops opening around the country in the past year has not slowed down.
The shops specialise in legal alternatives to illegal substances such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.
In dealing with the legal highs, Mr Curran said he would favour a ban rather than regulation. He made the comments at a National Drugs Task Force conference on legal highs in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
"I believe that many of the products pose serious risks for users and in that regard my view is to have them banned rather than licensed and controlled in that way," he said.
Efforts to control substances being sold through these outlets had been hampered by the specific nature of legislation under the misuse of drugs, he said.
Mr Curran suggested categorising the substances rather than the current method of looking at the individual components of products.
"We will look at other things other than just the Misuse of Drugs Act. We will look at other consumer protection legislation," he added.
While the sale of legal highs is being monitored by gardai, head shops are operating within the law and the substances on sale are not illegal.
However, many of those attending the conference felt more should be done to prevent young people using legal highs.
One woman said her 15-year-old son had ended up in intensive care after using a legal high. The Government should at least make sure "that nobody under 18 should be permitted into these stores", she said.
Others expressed concern about head shops which cater to late-night revellers by opening at 4am and others which delivered to pubs and clubs.
Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs Des Corrigan claimed "the vast majority of most of these products wouldn't meet basic standards of quality control".
Dr Jean Long of the Health Research Board said a number of new substances had appeared on the market in the past year.
She spoke of Mephedrone, a substance being sold through head shops as "bath salts" and being used as a substitute for cocaine.
Dr Long said some addicts had reported "injecting these salts".
The use of Mephedrone had been linked to two deaths in Sweden, she added.
Child psychiatrist Bobby Smyth said the use of legal highs was becoming increasing prevalent among teenagers.
Meanwhile, Youth Work Ireland described the Government's response to the growth of head shops and growing concerns about them as highly ineffective and as inviting a potential public health crisis.