Pubdate: Thu, 26 May 2016
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Alan Travis


Critics of Law Say Trade Will Simply Shift Underground

Whipped Cream Chargers May Come Under Suspicion

The blanket ban on the trade in legal highs which comes into force 
today is expected to end their sale through high street "head shops" 
and UK-based websites almost overnight, police and trading standards 
officers have said.

But there are fears that the trade in new psychoactive substances 
(NPS)  as they are officially known  will move underground to illegal 
street markets and the darknet, the network of untraceable and hidden websites.

The blanket ban on legal highs criminalises the production, 
distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances backed by 
prison sentences of up to seven years.

Simon Bray, from the National Police Chiefs Council, said at the 
weekend: "Head shops are not always exclusively NPS, of course. Some 
are going to be selling other stuff so some may continue trading. But 
those which have built their business around psychoactive substances 
will reduce in number or cease to be."

The ban comes in a week when four people were hospitalised after 
taking legal highs. The men, in their 30s and 40s, were found in 
various states of consciousness around Rochdale on Tuesday afternoon. 
Two people from a tobacconist had been arrested and the shop closed, 
said Greater Manchester police. Over the weekend, five men had fallen 
ill in the town after they had taken legal highs.

The legislation is expected to deter head shops and other legitimate 
traders who will stop selling legal highs rather than risk 
prosecution. Possession by individuals will not be a criminal offence.

The ban in England and Wales is targeted at outlawing the trade in 
synthetic chemicals designed to imitate the effects of drugs such as 
cannabis and ecstasy. The last official crime survey figures 
estimated that more than 937,000 people in England and Wales have 
used a legal high at some time, and 279,000 in the past year.

Nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas), salvia, and other 
substances that affect a "person's mental functioning or emotional 
state by stimulating or depressing their nervous system" are also 
covered by the ban.

The term psychoactive covers such a wide range of substances that the 
legislation comes with an extensive list of exemptions including 
food, medicines, alcohol, nicotine and tobacco products, and coffee and tea.

Home Office guidance to shops and other retailers appears to 
recognise that drawing a line between some household goods and banned 
legal highs is not always going to be easy.

In one case study, it suggests that a man over 25 who wants to buy 
cream-whipper chargers, which contain nitrous oxide, and nothing else 
at 11pm should be asked the reason for his purchase: "The customer 
hesitates in replying and when they do they seem intoxicated slurring 
their words. In this scenario, the cashier should consider not 
selling their goods." A Home Office expert evaluation of a similar 
ban in Ireland, which came into effect in 2010, reported that a 
network of 102 head shops largely disappeared without the need for 
prosecutions as a result of the ban. A Eurobarometer survey 
suggesting that use of legal highs actually rose in the wake of the 
ban in Ireland was blamed on a small sample size. The number of 
people attending drug treatment services as problem users of legal 
highs has declined since the ban. The Home Office study also warned 
there was a risk that the sale of popular banned substances would 
move into criminal supply, either through internet, international 
retailers or organised crime and street dealers as had happened in 
Britain with the residual market in mephedrone.

"In addition, any responsible retail practices, eg minimum purchase 
age restrictions employed by headshops, will be lost."

The study also warned that it was likely that some users would move 
from legal highs to alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription medicines.

The Local Government Association said councils had long called for 
the blanket ban: "We are aware of the risk that the sale of 
psychoactive substances will now move onto the dark web - a network 
of untraceable online activity and hidden websites - and would 
welcome the government putting additional resources into tackling the 
online threat," said Simon Blackburn.

Steve Hynes, of the North West Ambulance Service, also welcomed the 
legislation, saying officers had seen a marked increase in the number 
of calls from people who had reacted badly to taking these types of substances.

"Their symptoms can range from dizziness and nausea to confusion, 
cardiac problems and even death," he said.

"Because there are so many different substances on the market, it is 
difficult for us to know how to treat someone as we don't know what 
chemicals they have ingested. This can delay treatment and have 
long-term consequences for the individual. We hope the introduction 
of this legislation will send out a clear message that when taking 
these 'legal highs' you are risking your safety and even your life."

But a spokesperson for Transform, a thinktank concerned with drugs 
policy, said: "This act will end head shop sales, so politicians will 
have their visible PR success, but the markets will simply shift to 
unregulated street and online sales, increasing health risks and crime.

"Similar bans haven't worked in Ireland, where use has risen to the 
highest in Europe, or in Poland, where poisonings from these drugs 
have increased."

Karen Bradley, the minister for preventing abuse, exploitation and 
crime, defended the law saying: "Too many lives have been lost or 
ruined by the dangerous drugs formerly referred to as 'legal highs'. 
That is why we have taken action to stamp out this brazen trade.

"The Psychoactive Substances Act sends a clear message  these drugs 
are not legal, they are not safe and we will not allow them to be 
sold in this country."
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