Sales of ‘legal highs’ move to streets following head shop closures, review of law reveals

Government report finds that 2016 ‘legal high’ ban has not prevented the emergence of new novel psychoactive substances or impacted their availability on the dark web.

Packet of synthetic cannabis

The open sale of novel psychoactive substances (NPSs) through high street ‘head’ shops has been largely eliminated since the law was changed to ban the sale of ‘legal highs’, but the drugs are now being sold at a higher price and potency on the streets, a Home Office report has found.

The 30 month review of the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016, which came into force on 26 May 2016, also found that the UK remains one of the leading dark web sellers of NPS in Europe.

The Home Office review, which was published on 20 November 2018fulfils a requirement in section 58 of the PSA for the secretary of state to review the operation of the PSA after 30 months, prepare a report of the review, and give the report to parliament.

It points out that while there has been a considerable reduction in NPS use among adults since the PSA’s introduction, there has been a concurrent increase in Class A drug use among people aged 16–59 years during that time. 

The review says data and anecdotal feedback from police forces indicate that the PSA has resulted in head shops retail outlets specialising in selling substances such as cannabis accessories, tobacco and NPSs — either closing down or ceasing sales of NPSs, with 332 retailers identified as having stopped selling them.

However, it adds that there is “insufficient evidence” to address whether the PSA had been enforced “well”, and that the 492 arrests in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from May 2016 to December 2016 and 989 recorded NPS seizures in England and Wales from May 2016 to March 2017 suggested that the PSA had not completely eliminated the supply of NPSs.

The review says that since the PSA was enacted, the price of NPSs has increased and availability has dropped, with street dealers becoming the main source of NPSs — particularly synthetic cannabinoids.

But it points out that there is no evidence that the PSA has had any impact on dark web NPS activity, with academic evidence and a study by Europol identifying the UK “as one of the leading dark web sellers of NPS both before and after the Act”. The dark web is a part of the internet that is only accessible by means of special software.

Furthermore, it says that the emergence of new NPSs in the UK had continued following the introduction of the PSA and that their potency, particularly for synthetic cannabinoids, has increased.

Alex Stevens, a professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, and Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at Durham University, published their response to the review on The Conversation website, saying that it was “interesting that the government has chosen to release the review quietly without fanfare”.

“The PSA has certainly not eliminated the supply or use of the substances it aimed to restrict … quite the opposite: both the strength and price of these substances has increased since they were banned — a common effect of prohibition — leading to greater health harms and financial problems for users,” they wrote.

They recommended that “a much broader approach was needed” by the government, starting with more drug safety testing and a focus on those most harmed by austerity, such as the homeless and those with mental health conditions.

“The Act was presented as the solution to the cat and mouse game of banning individual substances. But the reality for Britain’s towns and cities, prisons and festivals is that harms continue,” they concluded.

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The Pharmaceutical Journal, Sales of 'legal highs' move to streets following head shop closures, review of law reveals;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20205777

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