Jim Orr: Belfast ideas to tackle legal highs

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The Scottish Government’s expert review group recently published its report on tackling New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), or so-called legal highs. Many interesting recommendations were made but in terms of legal powers, two different approaches from across the Irish Sea are instructive.

Firstly on existing powers, one of the most successful examples of a UK authority tackling NPS has been Belfast City Council which in 2013 used General Product Safety Regulations to seize NPS products from one shop under a forfeiture order. Remarkably, it was reported that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the council soon persuaded the other four shops in Belfast to voluntarily agree to stop selling NPSs. However, this approach is regarded as an uncertain one as, for example, legal judgements on product safety are made on a case by case basis, with toxicology and other evidence assessed each time. Also there remains the risk of legal action from traders in the event of an unsuccessful seizure. So although authorities across the UK are examining this approach, it appears to be a hit-and-miss one.

A potentially much better approach from the Republic of Ireland, and which would need new legislation, has been strongly recommended for consideration by the expert group. Again, the focus is on trade of NPS, rather than, say, possession. In 2010, it became a criminal offence in Ireland to “advertise, sell, supply, import or export a psychoactive substance, knowing or being reckless that it was for human consumption”.

This approach meant that substances would be assessed not by their chemical ingredients but by their psychoactive effect on the central nervous system. Of course, exceptions were made for the many culturally accepted stimulants consumed in both Ireland and Scotland, but a clear message was sent out: that dealing in all and any NPS would be illegal, with the new law rigorously enforced by the Gardai. The numbers of “head shops” across Ireland swiftly reduced from more than 100 to single figures. Specifically designed to address the challenges around NPS, this approach also appears much more effective than other alternatives such as licensing and regulating certain NPS products deemed to be “safe”, as is done in New Zealand.

The expert group recommended that the Scottish and Westminster governments work in partnership to create the new legislation urgently on this largely reserved matter, and a similar Home Office report from September 2014 also praised the potential of Irish approach. So there appears to be consistency from the experts UK-wide. In the meantime, local authorities, the police and others are doing what they can, but head-shop traders continue to cash in on the misery and grief of NPS use and misuse on our high streets.

Jim Orr is independent councillor for Southside Newington