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The issue of drugs in our society

There has been much in the media about head shops recently. It seems to me that there is a number of issues at stake , and many of the questions that the existence of head shops bring up are not being answered.

Curious, I made my way to two head shops based in Co Mayo over the weekend. Rather than coming away with answers, I came away with more questions.

First (and bearing in mind that I have only visited two premises), it seemed to me that there are drugs deathsdifferent kinds of head shops. One of the places I went into (let’s call it Head Shop 1) seemed to fit the bill of what I figured a head shop was: Hippy-ish, Rastafarian-inspired décor, purveyor of legal, largely herbal highs and ‘smoking paraphernalia’, such as pipes and bongs.

I explained to the shop assistant that I worked for The Mayo News, and he explained that he did not want to comment ‘on the record’ on the head shop or the products it sold, as he was not the owner. That said, he was friendly and willing to engage and appeared knowledgeable about the goods on sale. There were large signs clearly declaring the shop’s self-imposed decision not to sell to anyone under 18 and its Garda-ID requirement both on the door and inside – a policy that I witnessed being firmly enforced.

Head Shop 2, however, was a different story. Its walls were bare, save for a few T-shirts; there was no smoking paraphernalia, and there was much more in the way of legal ‘party pills’ and powders that seemed to promise ‘buzzes’ and ‘rushes’. The shop assistant seemed agitated and was uneasy when I told him I worked with The Mayo News. When I asked him about the products being sold he (rather worryingly) told me he didn’t know anything about them. He indicated that he was not the owner of the shop, but did say the owner would be back later that evening if I wanted to talk to him.

While I had questions about the goods being sold in both shops, I was much more uneasy about the products on display in Head Shop 2. They seemed ‘more chemical’ in nature and there was a distinct lack of labelling on much of what was on display. The shop assistant’s lack of knowledge about the products was very troubling.
The goods in Head Shop 1 carried labels (though in the absence of regulation, the worth of such labelling is open to suspicion), and the shop assistant’s product knowledge seemed strong.

This is of course only my view, based on nothing more than a very quick, uninformed, casual observation.

The Irish Times carried an article at the weekend (Saturday, February 20) that highlighted the fact that not all head shops are the same. It alluded to the fact that some head shops, unhappy with others that do not self-regulate, are forming an Alternative Traders Association, ‘with those signing up agreeing not to sell to under-age customers’. This is a step in the right direction, certainly. But in the absence of state regulation, what are the penalties? If there were state regulation, assumably there would be state-enforced penalties for shops that sold to minors.

State regulation would also, assumably, bring with it enforceable standards as regards labelling, and permissible products and potencies. This would go some way towards allaying some of the fears that many people justifiably have.

Many who argue for regulation believe that banning head shops outright would only serve to drive the trade underground, onto the black market, where shady ‘manufacturers’ and dealers are free to mix herbs and chemicals with dangerous additives to either increase or dilute potencies, leaving consumers of the products in a much more precarious, potentially life-threatening situation. The absence of legal alternatives could also result in an increased trade in cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, crystal meth, heroin and other ‘established’ illegals. Regulation seems crucial.

However, how would regulation work? Would labelling be imposed in a similar way to cigarette labelling, with warnings and product strengths indicated? Would it drive head shops, no longer able to sell ‘more potent’ products, out of business anyway?
Would the substances then only be sold in pharmacies, where pharmacists would be able to advise customers (consenting adults) about correct dosage, contraindications and possible interactions with other medications? Would pharmacists want to become involved in such transactions?

If not, would sellers of ‘legal highs’ be required to gain qualifications that equip them with standardised knowledge of the products and their physical and mental effects? Would this be fair, considering bartenders, tobacconists and health-shop workers are not required to have such rigorous knowledge?

Would regulation open the flood gates to the wide-spread use of mind-altering substances and create social problems even greater than those with which we are already grappling?

The issue of drugs, legal and illegal, in society is a difficult and murky one. We live in a world where alcohol and nicotine, and pharmaceuticals like diazepam (Valium), are acceptable; where ‘harmless’ products like glue, deodorant and Tipp-Ex are open to abuse; where one culture’s rite of passage is another’s poison. The one certainty is that drugs of one kind or another have been around since time immemorial and they are here to stay. The issue of how we as a society decide to protect minors, and the extent to which we educate and legislate, the extent to which we respect informed decisions freely made by adults, will continue to be a thorny one. All the more reason for open, considered, educated, level-headed debate among all the stakeholders.

By Ciara Moynihan

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