Legal high blitz ‘driving trade underground’

The Apothecary head shop in Clerk Street. Picture: Toby Williams
The Apothecary head shop in Clerk Street. Picture: Toby Williams
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A CITY head shop has reported an 80 per cent drop in its sales since a crackdown was launched on so-called “legal highs” – sparking fears the industry was being driven underground.

Edinburgh became the first council in Scotland to be granted powers to seize New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) amid safety concerns.

There’s no middle ground, no safe options. It’s a shame it forces everybody to extremes. A lot of people are going back to illegal drugs.

Chris McGuinness

City leaders and police joined forces to crack down on the sale of the stimulants following a spike in the number of hospital admissions and deaths linked to the products.

Concerns about an escalating legal high problem were particularly acute in the Southside area, where hard drug users were reportedly mixing the powders with heroin and injecting in nearby stairwells.

When the forfeiture order was granted in October, substances worth £50,000 were seized and destroyed by trading standards officers.

The order – which deems all NPS products unsafe – was hailed as a positive step forward. However, traders voiced fears that the ban could force sales “underground”.

Two months on, smoke shop Apothecary on Clerk Street in Newington, which sells herbal incense and other paraphernalia, has reported a dramatic drop in trade. Meanwhile, city-based drug information charity Crew 2000 is conducting independent research on the impact of the ban, amid mixed reports about its efficacy.

Apothecary manager Chris McGuinness said: “We’re taking in about a fifth of what we did. On average we were making £20,000 a week, while since October we’ve taken in between £3000 and £4000.

“There’s no profit at all, we are just paying people’s wages. We have had to let four members of staff go so far, but if that’s what it takes to save one youth’s life, that’s what it is. We’ll have to adapt.”

Mr McGuinness said: “The [forfeiture] order encompassed everything – it doesn’t differentiate between people that are injecting or those using herbals as an alternative to illegal drugs. There’s no control in the underground market. They have got the choice now, between nothing and the dark side. There’s no middle ground, no safe options. It’s a shame it forces everybody to extremes. A lot of people are going back to illegal drugs.”

Mr McGuinness said that the order affected around 2000 customers, most of whom were aged between 30 and 60.

“These were functioning members of society who work in offices and go out at the weekend. They were choosing this lifestyle because there was an element of safety,” he said. Police and council chiefs said that the ongoing crackdown had been reaping results, and spot checks have found all stores clear of NPS.

Chief Inspector Helen Harrison said: “These substances are not safe and have a hugely negative impact on individuals and communities.”

Community safety leader councillor Cammy Day said: “These products are clearly dangerous and we aim to keep them off the shelves of shops in the Capital.”

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kaye.nicolson@edinburghnews.com