The proliferation of legal high shops in Edinburgh has surprised many in the city. My constituency of Edinburgh Central, and particularly the Southside of the city, has suffered more than most.
With the “legal high” moniker and these products being publicly advertised and easily available in city centre shops it would be easy to imagine that these substances are relatively safe. But the legality of these drugs is a quirk in the law rather than an endorsement of their safety.
Producers get around bans on specific drug laws by creating new chemical compounds and packaging them as “not for human consumption”. These substances can be extremely dangerous, and we lack the long-term data we have with other drugs to truly understand the damage that users are risking. Those supplying the drugs may not be breaching the letter of the law but they are acting in an extremely irresponsible manner, and I am aware of deep concerns about the impact these drugs are having.
In January, the council’s health, social care and housing committee heard about the impact legal highs are having in the city. Beyond the shocking and attention-grabbing details – six deaths linked to legal highs as well as an incident involving a siege and a police officer being stabbed – there are real concerns over health and the impact on the local community. Police have been called to dozens of incidents that have ended in A&E trips, and there is evidence that heavy use of legal highs is having a significant impact on mental health.
All this will concern residents, but should not unduly frighten them. The police are taking the matter extremely seriously and I’m confident that they are doing their utmost to ensure that residents remain safe. A major operation involving 70 officers targeted so-called head shops across the city last August, while more routine work is ongoing.
While drug law is reserved to Westminster, last year the Scottish Government appointed an expert legal group to consider what devolved powers can be used to tackle legal highs. There will be a ministerial statement on legal highs next week which will outline how the government intends to deal with the issue. As always, the police are best able to deal with any problems but only if the public do their utmost to ensure that any issues are reported.
Marco Biagi is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central and Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment