Study Shows Significant Fall in Use of ‘Headshop’ Drugs among Young People Following Introduction of National Ban

Posted on: 30 June 2015

A new study by researchers in Trinity College Dublin has shown a significant reduction in both recent and problematic use among young people of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), more commonly known as ‘Headshop’ drugs, in the year after the Government introduced legislative changes targeting the sale and supply of such substances. The legislative changes resulted in the closure of 90% of headshops around the country.

The research team led by Dr Bobby Smyth, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Public Health & Primary Care at Trinity, studied two groups of adolescents attending for assessment and treatment at a youth drug and alcohol treatment service in Dublin. The first group studied attended the service immediately before the legislative changes were introduced and the second group attended in the similar time period in the year after the ban came into effect. Analysing the groups attending in the same calendar time period ensured that seasonal impacts, such as school and national holidays, were similar in both periods studied.

The researchers found that the percentage of problematic NPS users dropped from 34% in the first group to zero percent in the second group. The percentage who had used any NPS in the previous three months also dropped dramatically from 82% in the pre-ban group to 28% in the post ban group.

The study which has just been published in the International Journal of Drug Policy also showed that those who continued to use NPS in the post-ban era, did so in a lower risk manner and that the legislative ban did not result in increased use of other substances such as cocaine and amphetamines by these treatment attending adolescents.

Speaking about the significance of these findings and their implications, Dr Smyth said: “Much of the discourse among academics in this area and many critics of the proposed legislative changes suggested that banning NPS and effectively closing ‘headshops’ would simply drive supply into other more criminal supply networks and that use would therefore continue unabated. However, the findings have shown that the implementation of legislation, targeted primarily at the vendors of NPS, did indeed coincide with a fall in NPS use among this high risk group of teenagers who attend a drug and alcohol treatment service.”

“Notwithstanding the relatively small scale of this study, the findings are similar to studies in other jurisdictions following the introduction of legislative bans. While this study cannot prove a causal relationship between the closure of the headshops and reductions in NPS use by these adolescents, the magnitude of the fall and its timing are very striking. There was a great deal of negative publicity regarding adverse effects of NPS use in the media in Ireland around this time and there were also some educational campaigns, and these may also have contributed to the observed fall in use. It is also both clear and unsurprising that NPS were not eliminated by the legislative changes as there was evidence of some, albeit reduced, ongoing use.”

The average age of the groups studied was 17 and predominantly male. Both groups had similar patterns of lifetime use of NPS before they came for assessment; however recent usage of NPS in the post-ban group was significantly lower after the headshops closed and the legislative changes were introduced.

Background to the legislative changes in Ireland regarding NPS

The lifetime prevalence of NPS use among young adults was 5% across Europe, peaking in Ireland at 16% (European Commission, 2011). As most NPS were not scheduled in legislation as being illegal, they were sold commercially both in specialist shops known as 'headshops', and, to a much lesser extent, via the internet. By May 2010 the number of headshops in Ireland had increased to 102, equating to one shop per 45,000 people.

The Irish government took a two-pronged legislative approach to the issue of NPS. Firstly, the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended to add over 100 NPS on 10th May 2010. This made possession and sale of the specified drugs a criminal offence. About half the headshops subsequently closed, but many of the remaining businesses commenced selling NPS which were not scheduled in the May legislation. Then in late August 2010, the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act was introduced, stating ‘a person who sells a psychoactive substance knowing or being reckless as to whether that substance is being acquired or supplied for human consumption shall be guilty of an offence’. By September 2010, there were only 10-12 headshops left in Ireland and almost all ceased selling products for human consumption. 

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