Police have seized legal highs worth up to £60,000 in a string of unprecedented raids on Edinburgh “head shops”.
More than 70 officers swooped on three prominent stores, confiscating 3000 sachets of psychoactive substances that until now have been sold legally as “plant food” that is marked “not fit for human consumption”.
The surprise crackdown saw six plain-clothed police officers hit shops in a series of morning busts that caught most shop workers off guard.
After executing warrants, officers donned rubber medical gloves and pulled down the shop’s shutters before removing evidence bags packed with sachets of white powder of different brands that were all being sold over the counter.
Most are sold in one-gram packets costing up to £20.
One officer could be seen filming the raid as the substances were sent to laboratories for analysis and chemical testing.
The Edinburgh operation formed part of a national drive to stem the sale of legal highs – dubbed New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) by Police Scotland – that have been linked to 113 deaths in Scotland in the last year.
Nearly 60 stores were targeted across the country yesterday, including three in Leith Walk, Newington and Wester Hailes.
A further eight were visited by Trading Standards officers who advised shopkeepers about the licensing terms and legal pitfalls of selling the mind-altering products.
It is understood the seizures followed months of intelligence-gathering by detectives.
The Evening News joined officers on the raids and attended a morning briefing at Gayfield Police Station where Detective Sergeant Jamie Munro told officers the operation was a “great opportunity” to remove a substantial quantity of legal highs from the streets.
Speaking to the News, DS Munro said: “It’s a huge issue that’s going to grow and grow until such time we get specific legislation to allow us to combat it more effectively.”
After closed talks to discuss more sensitive aspects of the operation, officers were scrambled to a vendor on Leith Walk.
Detective Chief Inspector Stuart Houston, who led the operation, said the question marks hanging over the legal status of NPS made it a “challenging” quandary for Police Scotland – particularly when compared with tackling the sale of illegal drugs.
“It’s something that we monitor and legal highs are seized as part of normal day-to-day policing,” he said. “But this [operation] is a large-scale opportunity to get other agencies involved in assisting us in taking that forward.”
DCI Houston said legal highs are often combined with controlled drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine when revellers were partying, meaning it is difficult to attribute deaths directly to NPS.
“We’re looking at the harm reduction aspect and how these substances are being used,” said DCI Houston.
“A lot of our operation is gathering information over a period of time, with a view to visiting the premises which are believed to be selling those items. We work very closely with a number of different organisations, and they play a crucial part.”
In addition to Trading Standards, police have been working closely with an exhaustive list of agencies, including Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, British Transport Police, environmental health, EU law agency Europol, HMRC and the National Crime Agency.
Yesterday’s operation – one of the largest legal high raids ever seen in Edinburgh – came as a two-week awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of NPS was rolled out across Scotland.
Aimed at people aged between 11 and 18, it also targets parents, teachers and young professionals aged 25-35.
Posters and radio advertisements will spread the message, while community police officers will visit schools, youth groups and community events to educate on the dangers of NPS.
DCI Houston added: “We are keen to educate the public on all the associated risks of NPS. I would strongly urge our communities never to consume any of the NPS material currently being sold across the country. They may contain extremely harmful chemicals, which could seriously impact upon your long-term health.”
Figures from the National Records of Scotland show that the number of deaths in Scotland involving legal highs more than doubled last year.
There were 113 deaths in 2013 involving NPS, compared with 47 in 2012.
The responsibility for legislation on legal highs lies with the UK Government, and the Home Office has launched its own awareness campaign.
However, the Scottish Government is also taking a proactive stance on tackling the sale and use of the substances.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are clear that when it comes to these drugs, ‘legal’ does not equal safe. The longer-term health implications are completely unknown and users are acting as guinea pigs for untested and unregulated substances. We have hosted two summits on NPS and our expert group is meeting in the coming weeks to review the powers which are currently available in Scotland to tackle their sale and supply and help prevent more lives being cut tragically short.”
Three men arrested by police
THREE arrests were made by officers conducting separate raids in Dalkeith and Musselburgh as part of the legal high crackdown.
The intelligence-led operation saw five shops in Musselburgh and one in Dalkeith targeted for selling New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Three men – aged 25, 31 and 40 – were detained and charged with culpable and reckless conduct while the premises were closed pending further investigations.
Police officers and Trading Standards officials visited four premises to offer guidance on legislation and licensing laws relating to legal highs.
As a result of the action, NPS packets were seized from the two stores and will now be sent for analysis.
Superintendent Pat Campbell, who led the raids, said: “[The] operation – the result of considerable intelligence work by local officers and partner agencies – was very significant in terms of identifying premises where NPS products are being sold and customers are being given instructions on how to use them.”
THE search warrants issued during yesterday’s raids vary hugely from those administered for drugs offences by a sheriff, magistrate or justice of the peace.
They can be obtained by police officers who suspect reckless conduct, in this case by a shopkeeper.
The substances – which have been sold under brands including Benzo Fury and Meow Meow – are sometimes disguised as bath salts or plant food, and labelled “not for human consumption”.
It would be of particular concern if shop staff were promoting consumption of the items. But it is more likely outlets would face charges of reckless conduct than drug dealing.
The UK Government can make a Temporary Control Drug Order on a legal high, which makes the product an illegal substance for at least one year.