The recent fires at two Dublin head shops highlight the conflict at the heart of the legal supply of mood-altering products with unknown long-term effects, writes FIONA McCANN
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IT’S A THURSDAY afternoon in the Dublin Head Store, and a chemical smell is in the air. Its source, however, turns out not to be any of the myriad products on sale, but a cleaning product a staff member is using to wipe down the glass cabinets that showcase a vast and colourful display of pipes, bongs, lighters, rolling boxes, pipe cleaners and, somewhat incongruously, tea.
None of these products is the reason premises such as this have been hitting the headlines, even before the fires that destroyed two Dublin head shops this week. Elsewhere, the shops have sparked protests in towns such as Castlebar and Roscommon, where local people are demanding the closure of the newly opened head shops in their neighbourhoods. The reason? Alongside smoking paraphernalia and pipe cleaners, head shops also sell “legal highs”: leaves, pills and powders containing legal substances used to mimic the highs of their illegal counterparts.
Over the course of an afternoon, business is steady at the Dublin Head Store, with no shortage of customers – male and female, old and young – in these penny-pinching times. The premises is brightly lit and pristine, the products clearly labelled and displayed, while staff are friendly, with all comers welcome as long as they can show identification.
“Our over-18s is a self-imposed regulation,” explains the manager, Russell Wilbourne. “Everyone that comes in is therefore a consenting adult.” Wilbourne and his staff also offer advice to those who purchase their products about the care required in their consumption, while signs all over the shop warn those with any mental or physical disorder to seek medical advice before sampling the products.
Still, there are many anecdotal reports of young people who have suffered ill effects – psychotic attacks, mental breakdowns, cardiac problems – from legal highs. Has any of the Dublin Head Store’s customers ever come back to complain? “They have done,” admits Wilbourne, “and it usually turns out that they have completely ignored our advice.”
Media coverage has led to an increase in custom, he says. “When something is printed in the paper, it brings more interest in the products.”
Wilbourne feels head shops like the one he manages provide a helpful service. “It’s about offering a safe alternative to black market or illicit drugs.” His customers have similar views. Sean (32) is well dressed and articulate, and regularly buys products at this head shop. “It does provide more accountability: you know what you’re getting, to a large extent,” he says. He points out that the ease of access that such an establishment provides can have its downside, but says he’s never had a bad reaction to the products. “I’ve had bad experiences on the illegal side of things.”
Smoking products, such as those Sean came in to purchase, are among the most popular at the Dublin Head Store, where brands such as Smoke, Spice Gold and King BBB are packaged as herbal incense, though few are buying them for their stated purpose.
John (42) is straight up about his intention to smoke the packet of Ice Gold he came in for, but says it’s a lot better than the alternative. “This place has stopped me smoking hash and taking drugs,” he says, adding that having a legal option means he is able to purchase without supporting violent criminal drug gangs, whom he blames for the recent arson attacks on head shops. “It’s drug dealers, burning down the competition.” It’s a theory Sean shares. “The attacks are by members of the criminal underworld, because the head shops are taking their business away. It’s cheaper in head shops because there was so much competition around in the illegal market that the price rose. It’s a third of the price in here.”
FOR RACHEL (21), who buys party pills and smoking products, the primary issue is personal safety. “With illegal drugs, it’s dangerous. You can put yourself in very serious situations, buying the stuff.” Most of the customers also express a confidence in the products sold and the staff members who are selling them. “When you buy things elsewhere, you could be getting horse tranquillisers,” says John. “Here, you’re told how to take it, where to take it.” The Dublin Head Shop makes a point of not selling products containing mephadrone, a potentially addictive legal high with side effects that include nose bleeds, nose burns, rashes, anxiety, fits and delusions. But as the popularity of head shops grows, new shops are opening all around the country, not all of them as self-regulating.
With this in mind, a number of self-regulating head shop proprietors are getting together to form an Alternative Traders’ Association, with those signing up agreeing not to sell to under-age customers. “If you’ve got one company in a town that’s not doing a job, everyone gets tarred with the same image,” says Helen Stone, proprietor of The Funky Skunk head shop in Cork and Deep Route Gardening in Limerick. “It doesn’t help anybody. The public get confused as well, but the idea is that eventually people will know and stop buying from those companies.” The Funky Skunk has been open for five years, and to date has experienced no problems with local people. “We haven’t had any problems in Cork at all, apart from the fact that I heard this morning that our insurance company cancelled our cover,” she says – a consquence, she believes of the fires in the two Dublin head shops.
Other head shops in Cork have been targeted by protesters, many of them concerned parents.
Jackie Snype, a mother of three who lives in Roscommon town, has been helping to organise daily protests outside the local head shop that opened there last month. “What we really want is the stuff to be taken off the shelves and tested. Because all the packaging says ‘Not for human consumption’ when they know in their hearts and souls that whoever is buying it is smoking it or snorting it. It’s false advertising.” Though many of the products list natural ingredients, an analysis of Spice Gold by a German laboratory in 2008 revealed it to contain synthetic cannabinoid ingredients. Other legal highs that are becoming increasingly popular include those labelled as bath salts, but taken to mimic the effect of cocaine.
Rachel, the Dublin customer, admits to trying such products in the past, though nowadays she favours the smoking products, adding that she feels safer buying products from a head shop because “you get a list of ingredients and you know what you’re buying”.
But according to Dr Adam Winstock of the National Addiction Centre in London, knowing what the products contain does not necessarily make them safer. “These are substances that do not have a history of human use. Therefore, we don’t actually have decades of information on the effects, potential cancers, birth defects or lung disease,” he says. Although he sees head shops that offer sensible advice about consumption as an improvement on buying online, it still presents a conflict. “All these things are labelled as ‘Not to be sold for human consumption’. If you say it’s not for human consumption, how can you give advice on its consumption?”
BUYING SUCH PRODUCTS over the counter does not negate the risks. “The takeaway harm reduction messages for any drug that alters your brain function is that young brains are much more vulnerable to serious adverse effects than older brains. And the risk of adverse effects increases with increased consumption in quantity and over time. Although nobody knows what the effect of these drugs is in the long or short term, the fact that they alter your mood and perception significantly mean it is quite likely there will be some people vulnerable to developing adverse side effects.”
Plans to bring more products under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 before June mean some of those currently on sale in head shops may soon be banned. According to a spokesman for the Department of Health and Children, “In the light of the health risks associated with some of the products being sold in so-called ‘head shops’, the Department intends to have the regulations drafted this month which will introduce controls, similar to those introduced recently in the UK, on a range of substances which are currently on sale in head shops.” A ban on several drugs that previously fell into the legal high category came into force in the UK late last year. These include BZP, which is already illegal in Ireland, and synthetic cannabis, found in many of the herbal mixtures currently on sale in this country.
So how do the head shops feel about further regulation? “We would welcome the regulations, if that’s what it takes for us to stay open,” says Wilbourne, though he adds: “It’d be a shame if the Minister banned all of these products because the illegal drugs’ trade would go up again, and who wants that?”
As for his customers, 70-year-old Paddy says if his favourite legal product, Smoke Plus, was banned he’d “go back to the street.” For Paddy, who has problems with alcohol, legal highs are preferable to the bottle of vodka he would be legally sold in an off-licence. “It’s the lesser of the two evils.”
Head Shops Explained
Head shops are retail outlets that began as shops selling pipes, bongs (water pipes) and paraphernalia associated with cannabis consumption. Many Irish head shops – of which there are an estimated two dozen around the country – sell weighing scales, plant-growing equipment and a number of products still legal, but used to alter mood and sensory perception. The most common of these “legal highs” include
Herbal incense Often sold as pot pourri, but smoked as marijuana alternatives. Examples include Spice Gold and Yucatan Fire. Listed ingredients include Rosa Damascena and Vanilla Plainifolia but laboratory analysis of some products has shown the existence of synthetic cannibinoids.
Kratom A psychoactive leaf grown in southeast Asia, its effect is that of an opiate. It also comes in varying strengths.
Bath salts Though labelled as bath salts, these white powders are used as alternatives to cocaine. Examples include Charge, Snow and Snowblow. Listed ingredients on Snow packaging include creatine, caffeine and hoodia.
Pills These break down into energy pills, with listed ingredients that include caffeine and piperazine, which accelerate the heart rate and are designed to mimic the effects of speed, and party pills designed to give an Ecstasy-like euphoria. Examples include Speed and Activate, in the former category, and X 4 Ecstasy and Empathy in the latter.
Salvia divinorum A psychoactive herb traditionally used by Mexican shamans for spiritual healing sessions. Considered one of the most potent and dangerous products still sold legally, it has hallucinogenic properties and is sold in a number of different strengths. FIONA McCANN
Head Shops In The Headlines
Gardaí fear the fires in two head shops in Dublin during the past eight days may be the beginning of a sustained campaign of violence against the outlets.
The first fire, last Friday, was a major event. It destroyed the targeted Nirvana head shop on Capel Street in the north inner city, spread to adjoining shops and damaged cars parked on the street outside. Almost €500,000 in cash stored in a safe on the premises survived the blaze intact.
The second fire, at the Happy Hippy head shop on North Frederick Street (pictured right) on Tuesday evening was less serious, leaving the outlet largely intact.
However, senior Garda officers in the city believe two fires don’t quite constitute a law and order crisis. “At the same time, we’ll be looking to see what happens next because if you have a third incident we’d obviously have a clear pattern on our hands,” said one Garda source.
A number of parties may be out to damage the shops. Some of the recent public debate around head shops has been very heated. Gardai believe it is possible disgruntled members of the public may take the law into their own hands and attack the outlets.
The owner of Nirvana, Jim Bellamy, certainly thinks so. He says his shop was targeted because of “trial by media”.
It is also possible drugs gangs, unhappy at losing business to the head shops, have decided to take out the competition. The demand from recreational users for illicit drugs has collapsed since the recession started because disposable income is now at a premium, leaving drugs gangs under financial pressure.
The involvement of dissident republican groups cannot be ruled out. Last month, Derry head shop owner Raymond Coyle (52) was shot three times in the leg by a gunman who came into his shop.
Republican Action Against Drugs, widely regarded as a cover for the Real IRA, has claimed responsibility for the shooting, saying it was part of a campaign to stop the flow of drugs into the local community. CONOR LALLY, Crime Correspondent
February 20, 2010
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Head shops feel the heat