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Terry Prone: We banned smoking in pubs for God's sake. Why can't we ban these dodgy legal highs... before somebody dies?

The disturbing and insightful Prime Time programme last night has removed any doubt about the need to ban or severely regulate headshops.

One camera observing just one of these emporia captured a steady stream of customers in their late teens arriving at the door. And, shortly thereafter, leaving with packets of pills, capsules and powders which claim to mimic the effects of cocaine and other banned substances.

If the same pattern holds all around the country, then thousands of teenagers, every day, visit these headshops in order to purchase a speedy -- and currently legal -- high.

It's crazy. We have no idea what the long-term consequences are for these teenagers' minds and bodies. Hell, we have no idea what the SHORT-term consequences are.

We don't know what's in the pills or powders. We don't know where they're made of. We don't know who makes them. What we DO know is that they're leaping off the shelves.

Contrast that with how we regulate the pharmaceutical industry. Before a new drug gets into your local pharmacy, the makers have to jump through more hoops than a tiger in a circus. They have to invest billions and years to prove the medicine has no lethal or dangerous side effects.

Every now and again, one of the clinical trials they have to run reveals a serious problem, and the company involved, if it was dependent on this new preparation in its pipeline, may be brought to its financial knees by having to abandon it and swallow all of the costs incurred to that point. And, at the same time, we're allowing untested, unproven pharmaceutical preparations to be sold to kids without let or hindrance? Are we barking mad or what? A few years ago, then Minister for Health Micheal Martin showed enormous courage when he banned cigarette smoking in the workplace. His action did enormous damage to one of Fianna Fail's most supportive sectors, the publicans of Ireland. But he still did it, because he knew the evidence proves that cigarettes maim and kill, costing the health service billions every year.

Addicted smokers still resent the fact that they can't have a fag with their pint. And, at the same time, we're allowing untested, unproven and potentially addictive substances to be sold to kids in virtually every town in Ireland? Are we barking mad or what?

Mary Harney moved swiftly when a bereaved family put it to her that their son and brother would still be alive if the magic mushrooms which precipitated his death were not freely available for purchase. She banned them. Fair dues to her. Except the family have now indicated that they see what they achieved as a hollow victory, because in the ensuing years, headshops have sprung up like weeds.

And if those headshops can't sell magic mushrooms, they can and do sell drugs that may be of much more lethal effect. We simply don't know.

We have permitted a big, profitable and widely distributed market to develop in the face of pig ignorance and inaction on the part of the state. Are we barking mad or what?

Not only are these headshops to be found all around the country, they are to be found cheek-by-jowls with schools, with music shops, with newsagents.

The message sent by their ubiquity and closeness to the places families and children visit every day is that headshops are as normal as greengrocers used to be. Inevitably, the corollary of that normality is an assumption that what they sell is equally normal. No danger. In addition, the packaging is sophisticated in its imitation of normal branding.

We should not have to wait until a youngster dies a horrible death in order to remove or rigorously regulate headshops. We must do it now. It's a moral and public health imperative. No choice. Immediate Government action, please.