Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Legal highs 'easy to find in Northern Ireland towns'

Legal highs are widely for sale across Northern Ireland

Following reports that a man was shot in Londonderry because he owned a shop selling legal highs, BBC News Online examines how readily available these drugs are in Northern Ireland and also looks into the possible dangers they pose.

It used to be that any teenager in Northern Ireland who wanted to get high had to first of all work out where to find something to take.

Now, however, due to the internet and shops openly selling legal drugs, which mirror the effects of some banned substances, the problem of supply has been all but removed.

Most cities and larger towns in the province have at least one so-called head shop.

For those people who do not know what a head shop is, let alone what it sells, they are the ones on the high street painted in Rastafarian colours whose window displays usually centre around bongs and other weird and wonderful devices.

Government legislation banned these shops from selling several substances, including GBL, BZP and herbal mixtures such as Spice, at the end of last year.

Scientists, officials and police officers have been concerned for several years that these drugs, had been sold openly across Britain and on the internet, despite some evidence that they can be harmful to health.

Anyone caught in possession of these drugs now faces the possibility of a two-year jail sentence.

Experts are concerned that manufacturers are simply tweaking the chemical make-up of these substances and rebranding them.

Head shops

One drug in particular which drug awareness groups and health officials are growing increasingly concerned about is Mephedrone.

Mephedrone is sold as a white powder which is usually snorted in a similar way to cocaine and has effects similar to amphetamines and ecstasy.

It is also found in capsules and pills or can be dissolved in a liquid and in very rare cases it can be injected.

Mephedrone is already illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Israel, and is a controlled drug in Germany.

A recent BBC investigation found the drug on sale under various names in several "head shops" in Belfast, Londonderry and numerous other towns across Northern Ireland.

These shops were not breaking the law by selling the drug, provided they check that whoever is buying it is over 18.

Mephedrone is sold over the counter and is labelled as either bath salts or plant food.

It also carries a health warning advising that it is not fit for human consumption and has been linked to a number of deaths.

Karl Williams
Karl Williams said many users were unaware of the side effects

One user, who wished to remain anonymous, said he and his friends took the drug because they believe it to be safer than illegal narcotics.

"Unlike cocaine and ecstasy, mephedrone is pure and doesn't come mixed with household products," he said.

"I've only taken it a few times but every time I have, the buzz has kept me up all night and well into the next morning.

"It is quite addictive and the majority of my mates have been taking it most weekends."

Karl Williams, from FASA a drug awareness charity based in west Belfast, said many users also shared the opinion that the drug had no bad side effects.

"It is so readily available, young people can get their hands on it," he said.

"I think the concern as well is when you hear the term legal high, you tend to think its legal, it must be safe, let's try it, and that is not the case."

The owner of a head shop in Derry said he decided to stop selling mephedrone after staff in the shop were threatened by people who had taken the drug.

The man, who did not want to reveal his identity, also said he thought the drug should be banned.

"It isn't illegal to sell this stuff and I sold them because there was high demand," he said.

"People were coming into the shop and asking if we had them so we started selling them.

One member of staff was threatened by someone who was drunk and taking highs
Head shop owner

"Business for it was very good, come the weekends it was hectic.

"But it just started to get too much hassle.

"One member of staff was threatened by someone who was drunk and taking highs.

"So I stopped selling it out of concern for the reputation of the shop and safety of the staff."

Victoria Creasy, from the Public Health Agency, said they had received reports of children as young as 14 using the drug.

"If we are always following the drugs, the legislation comes after we have shown them to be dangerous and that may be too late from some people," she said.

"We need to be looking at other kinds of legislation.

"My understanding is that there is something in the US called emergency scheduling so that whereby as soon as a new drug appears it can be made illegal straight away while they find new evidence.

"So you are not waiting to find out that it is dangerous.

"I think we do need to start looking at that."

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has said it is reviewing mephedrone as a priority and is expected to decide later this year whether or not the law should be changed.

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