CAMPAIGN: Close the drug shops and ban the 'legal highs'

Head shops, weed shops, grow shops - they are called by different names but are all about the same, to peddle drugs in the shadowy world of quasi legal drugs like magic mushroms, Incense, salvia, Doves, "Spice" and other hallucinogenic substances. These are often called legal highs and often readily available in shops like these or through the internet.

A ball has started to roll. Head shops, common in many cities in Europe has been establishing themselves largely unnoticed. Selling equipment for drug use and drug paraphernalia as well as various psychotropic substances like magic mushrooms, Spice, Wilde cat, meow-meow, Poppers and "party pills". Some of these are narcotic drugs other pretend to be. Most shops openly promote drug use.

Local communities righteously feel that these shops are promoting drug use in various ways and wants them closed. We support them.

Internet trade

A significant part of the trade in legal high is through the internet. According to data obtained from Google, the proportion of internet search volume related to purchasing mephedrone on-line has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, particularly in Europe, UNODC reports (Global Smart Update 2010 vol1). The drug, which is not under international control, can be obtained easily via the internet purchased as so-called “plant-food.“

If you enter "mephedrone buy" in Google you will get an endless list of providers offering their goods. They are frequently sold as "plant food" - fertilizer for your garden. Their services are "Fast, Discreet and Professional" as one internet store says. "High purity products, secure payment, very discreet next day UK delivery," says another.

Recently there have been several deaths related to mephedrone, and the UK government is probably going to introduce a ban this summer. In order to get the legal basis necessary for law enforcement agencies and Customs to move effectively against the trade legal highs, they must be on the illegal narcotic drugs list at country level. Se news story here and here.

Several countries have already banned some of the legal highs. When listed as an illegal drug law encorcement authorities and Customs have the legal basis they need to seriously go after the trade. However a ban will also create the necessary awareness and insentive for other measures to be implemented in terms of education, prevention and interventions.

Last but not least. The real difficulty is the internet trade. This requires international cooperation both in terms of closing the internet shops and going after the trafficking. The internet trade is important to stop since it represents a direct to customer trade.  

Tell us! 

If you have examples of head shops in your neighborhood or any action taken to have them closed, tell us about it. Send us your photos with date and place of the shop.

We are equally interested in any news on legal highs, its use, harm and attempts to outlaw them.

This is a European phenomenon and attention is needed at European level.


Ireland has a population of over 4 million people. There were more than 100 recorded Headshops selling psychotropic substances with more opening weekly. Several community based initiatives were launched to have these shops closed.

In May (2010) the government decided to ban a number of the illegal substances. The Bill will also allow the police to seek a court order to close head shops suspected of selling drug-like products with the onus on the owners to prove they are not involved in such activities. Today there are about 3 head shops selling only paraphernalia.

The new law has both banned a number of specific substances but in addition proposed a ban on drugs sold by head shops that may have psychoactive effects. This catch all approach is new in Europe and is meant to stop new products coming on the market that normally will take months to identify and ban. Denmark has in October announced its decision to pass a similar generic ban.


The unbelievable thing happened. After making head shops legal, a grass root campaign succeeded in reversing the decision and introduce a ban.

Many of these substances have no botanical basis and are not natural at all, as psychiatrist Eugen Hriscu explains to Radio Romania International:

“We are actually talking about hallucinogenic substances, newly synthesised drugs and those derived from common drugs such as cannabis and amphetamine. They have been slightly modified in order to dodge the prohibited substance list and make it onto the legal market.’’

In February the government adopted an emergency ordinance, banning 36 plants and substances that were included in the drugs category. Through this ordinance, people are banned from possessing or selling 27 substances and plants with hallucinatory effects.

Spice - mix of herbs with dangerous effects

The "legal high" spice or spice gold has caused alarm, it is a brand name for a herbal mix widely sold as an ‘incense’ or legal substitute for cannabis. The drug is widely sold on the internet. see reports in Science Daily here.

Countries banning 'Spice'

In November 2009, the European Monitoring Centre og Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reports that responding to potential health concerns, four EU Member States have taken diverse legal actions to ban or otherwise control ‘spice’ products and related compounds.

"Germany used emergency narcotics legislation to control five synthetic cannabinoids found in ‘spice’ for one year. France classified as narcotics six synthetic cannabinoids found in ‘spice’ products. Austria used its medicines act to prohibit smoking mixes containing six synthetic cannabinoids from being imported or marketed in the country. Luxembourg decided to control various synthetic cannabinoids as psychotropic substances. Poland amended the narcotic law, placing under control JWH-018 and two of the claimed herbal ingredients of ‘spice’." See full report here including risk assessments.

Designer cannabis

This substance that is still legal in many countries is similar to tetra hydra cannabinol or THC in cannabis - just much more powerful. In addition to being illegal in Germany, Insence has been banned in the Netherlands and its legality is under review in Austria. But scientists are still looking at what side effects the drug could have.

Toxicologist Dr John Ramsey, who runs the Tic Tac Communications drugs database at St George’s Medical School in London, said: “It’s not a problem at the moment, in that we’re not aware of casualties appearing in A&E, but there’s an underlying potential for a problem.”
He added that there were between 20 and 30 other similar substances that could be added to the incense mixtures.

Mephedrone - "Miaow/plant food"

Mephedrone is sold freely on the internet as "plant food". It has caused several deaths already and authorities in several countries are considering to put it on the narcotic drugs list. On the Channel Island of Guernsey the use has spiralled out of control and authorities have told BBC News they are considering classifying the synthetic stimulant possibly as a class A drug.

Jersey, the neighbouring island banned mephedrone in December and listed it as a class C drug. The UK government is still considering in which class to list it. Guernsey already introduced an import ban on mephedrone, which as restricted the drug being sold openly in shops. But in order for the law enforcement authorities and Customs to get the powers needed to go after the smuggling and sale it needs the drug to be listed as illegal narcotid drug. 

Khat - cathinone

One of the latest "legal highs" to be found is based on cathinone, the active ingredient in the plant khat, commonly used as a stimulant in East Africa. Although cathinone is a controlled substance, scientists say these new compounds have been deliberately modified to circumvent the law.

"They are being sold as a safer alternative to ecstasy and I guess that there are a group of people who really want to engage with the dance scene and engage with their friends and don't want to break the law" John Ramsey from TIC TAC Communications based at St George's Hospital in south London tells BBC news.

UN moves against legal high

At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in early March this year UN Member States agreed on two resolutions against legal high, one on Spice and one on Poppers. Both resolutions raised concern over the spread of these substances and called upon Member States to consider banning them under national law.

The resolution on Poppers warns against its many health consequences. The resolution on Spice notes that several countries have already placed some synthetic cannabinoids in Spice products on the list of substances controlled under their national legislation. The UN calls upon Member States to “consider controlling the use of synthetic cannabinoids in Spice products by placing them on the list of substances under national control".

Media headlines

Fifth person to die from mephedrone in the UK (18th March The Times)

Action pledged on 'Meow, Meow' drug after two teen friends die within hours of taking 'legal high' (Daily Mail, 17th March)

Head shop legal high almost killed this 17-year-old (18th March Bray People, Ireland)

Doctors call for ban on ‘legal high’ after woman dies (31.01.10, The Herald, Scotland)              

Government signals ban on 'legal highs' (Inside Ireland, 26,01.10) 

NIDA Researchers Discover A New Mechanism Underlying Cocaine Addiction (7.01.10, NIDA, USA)

Baby Boomers Still Doing Drugs as Seniors; Need for substance abuse treatment could double by 2020, report shows (8.01.10, Business Week)

'Legal high' ban broadly welcomed (3.03.10, RT News, Ireland)

‘Meow meow’ linked to deaths of teens in Sweden and the UK (22.01.10, TES Connect)

Worrying side effects attached to drug (mephedrone) in Australia. (29.01.10 The Sidney Morning Herald)