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Padraig O'Morain: Dangerous and frightening phenomenon of head shop drugs had to be dealt with

AN unwelcome development on our streets seemed to be ending yesterday as head shops all over the country began closing.

The public paid little enough attention to the arrival of head shops and their legal highs over the years. But suddenly startled parents saw them springing up on their streets, around the corner, near their children's schools.

The shops were utterly unregulated and they were everywhere. Moreover, their legal highs worked, as evidenced by the fact that they took business away from the criminal gangs -- which are suspected to have responded by bombing them.


But what really worried parents was the effect on kids who might never have gone out of their way to buy illegal drugs, but who found it all too easy to experiment with these mind-altering drugs on the way home from school or in night clubs.

It wasn't young people getting high that really frightened their parents, but instead it was the danger that they would die or would suffer permanent damage.

In March, for instance the Herald reported on the case of a 17-year-old girl from Bray who suffered a 35-minute seizure after taking a substance called Wild Cat, which contained mephedrone.

It took a three-hour battle by the medical staff at Loughlinstown hospital to save her life and to put her on the road to recovery.

We also heard the stories on Joe Duffy's Liveline of bizarre and frightening behaviour by teenagers who had tried mind-altering drugs.

Meanwhile, head shops were determined to expand their share of the market. Some stayed open until after the nightclubs closed to catch customers on their way home.

Organisations working with drug users reported an upsurge in problems. Services used to dealing with people abusing drugs such as cocaine now found found themselves trying to help people using various mixes of legal drugs.

Some doctors found the new drugs frightening precisely because it was impossible to know what exactly someone had taken when they were brought into the Accident and Emergency department by friends or family.

At least with cocaine and heroin, they knew where they stood. With the legal highs, they were working in the dark.

The head shop phenomenon startled even people who advocated the decriminalisation of illegal drugs in order to draw the teeth of the criminal gangs. Advocates of decriminalisation were dismayed by the utterly unregulated aspect of the spread of head shops.

And the Government seemed to be asleep at the wheel. As Joe Duffy banged on about head shops on his programme and as other news media reported rising concerns among the public, there was little sense of urgency at first on the part of the Government.

Finally, it was announced that mephedrone would be banned, and that took effect this week along with bans on two other drugs, synthetic cannabinoids and benzylpiperazine.

That in itself would not be enough, however; head shops and their suppliers could simply bring new substances to market, taking advantage of the three-month delay in banning imposed by EU regulations.


But finally the Government seems to have got on top of the problem with help from the EU, who lifted the three-month consultation period at the request of the Government.

The Cabinet has approved legislation which puts the onus on head shop owners to prove in court that they are not supplying mind-altering drugs.

That sounds like strong legislation and hopefully it will survive any legal challenges that may be made against it.

It looks as though the right thing has been done at last.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy