Carrick-on-Shannon 'Head Shop' owner, Jochem Bellm has called for the immediate regulation of the production and sale of so called 'legal highs' as an alternative to an outright ban on the products.
Speaking with the Leitrim Observer earlier this week, Mr Bellm, who owns four adult shops in Counties Donegal, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, said that there is an obvious need for regulation, especially of the production and sale of these products.
At the moment so called 'Head Shop' owners are left to regulate their own sale of 'legal highs', to varying effect.
"I do not under any circumstances sell my products to those under 18 and I ensure that all my products are labelled with the only warnings that I am legally allowed to put in place "that they are not for human consumption". I'd love to be able to put warnings about the abuse of these products on them but unfortunately current legislation means that I cannot do this.
"Any regulation of these products at the moment is down to the individual retailers and there is no regulation where it is especially needed, in the production and labelling of the products," he told our reporter.
Mr Bellm said that banning the products will only force the sale of such items into the hands of drug dealers or to internet suppliers, eliminating any chance of regulating the product and its supply and putting more people at risk.
"At the moment the Government has the opportunity to impose regulations regarding the sale of these 'legal highs' from stopping its sale to those under 18, to controlling the opening hours of shops selling these products and ensuring that those producing these legal highs have to label their products with the exact ingredients and warnings about the risks involved.
"All this could be done by the Government in 24 hours but instead they are looking at banning them altogether and I believe that will only create a more serious problem," he admitted.
He said that 'legal highs' are a worldwide phenomenon and people will simply turn to the internet, to drug dealers or cross the border to buy the products if the Irish Government impose a complete ban on their sale. "This sort of move would absolutely achieve nothing. It's like burying your head in the sand and pretending if you don't sell it here people won't use it. That's incredibly naive," he said.
Referring to the Government's recent announcement on the ban on the sale of certain substances, Mr Bellm said he firmly believed the Government were "missing the point".
"Saying you are going to ban the sale of something in three months time is just giving producers three months in which to come up with something new, you are not solving the problem, you are not regulating the problem, you are just creating a new problem," he argued. "Banning doesn't stop young people getting their hands on these products. The only answer is regulation."
Mr Bellm is also critical of the lack of drug education offered in schools across Ireland.
"It is essential that young people are made aware of the dangers in taking drugs and that includes other 'legal highs' such as cigarettes and alcohol. Twenty one people die each day in Ireland as a a direct result of using cigarettes or alcohol. It costs the HSE p2.6 billion a year to deal with the medical implications of these two 'legal highs' alone but the Government isn't looking at banning their sale," he pointed out.
A trained paramedic, Mr Bellm said he was shocked when he moved to Ireland a number of years ago, by the number of young children abusing alcohol.
"I am a fully qualified paramedic and I have worked in a number of countries but I never saw so many young kids coming into hospitals with alcohol poisoning as I have here in Ireland. Here alcohol is accepted.
"We have people coming into hospitals, abusing staff, beating up nurses and doctors who are trying to help them and yet drinking is still considered socially acceptable and there is no real regulation of it.
"It is a double standard to call for the banning of one form of legal high and yet not touch legal highs like alcohol and cigarettes which have been proven time and time again to cause serious social and health problems," he said.
Mr Bellm accepted there were "serious concerns" in the community about the sale of legal highs in 'Head Shops' but he said protesters were targeting the wrong people with their pickets.
"My shops are selling the products, yes, but I am also calling for greater regulation of the sale of these products. I want there to be restrictions on the sale of 'legal highs'. I want to be able to sell items that are properly labelled, but there is no legislation in place for that.
"The Government has to step in and ensure that adequate legislation is put in place and people should be calling on the Government to do this, not picketing retailers. Put pressure on the producers who make the products, to ensure they correctly label their products.
"Put pressure on the Government to introduce legislation to regulate, but don't stand outside a shop yelling abuse at people who are just doing their job. That solves nothing," he said.
Independent MEP Marian Harkin however is calling for the immediate ban of some legal high products. Referring to correspondence from the European Commission Marian Harkin noted: "Recent statements from the Irish Government indicate that they must wait three months before getting E.U. clearance to ban or control certain substances yet on close reading of the E.U. directive it is clear that this three month moratorium does not apply in certain cases eg. those "occasioned by serious and unforeseeable circumstances relating to the protection of public health or safety."
"Without any doubt recent events in Ireland and the U.K. indicate that we need to protect public health and safety immediately and Article 9(7) of the relevant directive allows us to act now.
"It is also worth noting that some of the substances that the Irish Government propose to ban or control are already controlled in other E.U. states e.g. Mephredone is controlled in Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Romania, Sweden and Norway, the Netherlands and Finland.
"GBL is controlled in Bulgaria, Latvia, Italy, Romania, Sweden and the U.K. 1.4BBD is controlled in Sweden and Bulgaria.
"Overnight the Irish Government guaranteed the banks and sorted it out with the E.U. Commission later. This situation is every bit as important- the legislation allows them to act so there is no excuse for waiting," she argued.
By Leonie McKiernan
April 7, 2010