DIT research shows renewed efforts needed to tackle sale of illegal ‘headshop drugs’ online


27th June 2011

Renewed efforts are needed to tackle the sale of illegal ‘headshop drugs’ on the internet, according to new research undertaken by DIT.

Commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD), the research study New Psychoactive Substances and the Outlets Supplying Them, was released today to coincide with the UN International Day against Drug Abuse.  The Study reveals what is contained in various psychoactive products and how they are being supplied. It also makes a series of recommendations to Government. (Full report at www.nacd.ie.)

Since the study began in early 2010 most of the substances which were openly sold in headshops have been made illegal (since May 2010) and many headshops have closed.  However, the research found that illegal ‘headshop style’ products (new psychoactive substances) remain available online and some are being sold as food products.

The team responsible for the research included staff members from a number of areas across DIT:

  • Cathy Kelleher, Researcher at the Centre for Social and Educational Research, DIT
  • Rachel Christie, Researcher School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, DIT
  • Dr. Kevin Lalor (Principal Investigator), School of Social Sciences and Law, DIT
  • Dr. John Fox, School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, DIT
  • Dr. Matt Bowden, School of Social Sciences and Law, DIT
  • Dr. Cora O'Donnell, School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, DIT

Róisín Shortall Minister of State at the Department of Health with Special Responsibility for Primary Care stated that “Since the NACD work in this area began, approximately 200 substances have been banned under the Misuse of Drugs regulations.  Also legislation was introduced that made it a criminal offence to sell or supply substances not prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but that have psychoactive effects on humans.  The number of headshops dropped from 102 early in 2010 to 11.  While this represents huge progress in respect of availability and consumption of new psychoactive substances in Ireland, such substances continue to pose dangers, particularly to young people, through internet sales.

Informed by this research, I intend to take all necessary steps to minimise those risks, utilising interagency co-operation to tackle the issues involved.”

NACD Chairperson Dr. Des Corrigan highlighted how illegal headshop products continue to be sold online: “While the number of headshops decreased significantly as a result of Government action, a challenge still exists in terms of the monitoring of online outlets for the sale and supply of new psychoactive substances. There are a vast number of online retailers, many of which deliver to Ireland. The report found that while these online products may claim to be ‘legal’, the products which were analysed all contained illegal substances.

"In order to address this issue efforts could be made to examine existing models to curtail such trading, for example, through the co-operation between the Irish Medicines Board and the Customs authorities to monitor the sale of counterfeit medicines."

"The NACD also recommends that the Department of Health monitor the emergence of new headshop products and move speedily to ban them."  

Further recommendations include:

  • A centralised national database to collect data from Emergency Departments on alcohol and other drug use be developed and managed by an appropriate agency. This would facilitate the verification of the harm being caused by existing and newly emerging drugs.
  • The HSE National Drugs Awareness Campaign take account of user experiences of new psychoactive drugs. Also online campaigns such as, drugs.ie, should highlight the dangers of new psychoactive drugs as identified in the research report.
  • Ireland should review the proposals for legislation in the UK under which it is proposed to allow for the temporary banning of psychoactive substances while they are being fully assessed for their harmful effects.

Findings of the study include that:

  • Many users reported negative reactions to using ‘legal highs’ including black outs.
  • The lack of consistency between the stated content and actual content of the psychoactive products.
  • The combination of substances within individual products creates a potential risk of problematic drug interactions.
  • Lack of information on toxicity of new substances increases the possibilities of overdose.

49 products sourced from Irish headshops and online outlets were analysed. Products were mostly in powder or tablet form. One was a herbal smoking product. The research found that:

  • The five products purchased online underwent analysis and all five contained illegal drug substances.
  • All of the products purchased in headshops prior to the legislation on headshop products (May 2010), contained substances that are now illegal.
  • 79% of powder substances, 25% of tablet and 33% of capsule products had no ingredients listed.

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