Calls have been made for shops in Leeds that sell so-called ‘legal highs’ to be banned amid growing concern about the potential dangers of the mind-altering substances.
Coun Mick Coulson, who is involved in a campaign to raise awareness of problems with chemicals that mimic the effect of banned drugs, wants the authorities to have more powers to take action against stores known as head shops.
He said: “We now have five in Leeds and it’s a growing concern. I would say we have a problem, or we are going to get one unless we can get some proper legal controls.
“I think we would all like to see a ban on this type of shop.”
Although levels of use are difficult to assess, legal highs have become widespread since mephedrone – also known as meow meow or M-Cat – started to be sold as a party drug in the last decade. A survey in 2011 found 8.2 per cent of Britons had taken psychocative substances.
M-Cat was banned in 2010 and other previously legal substances have since been outlawed as their use has been linked to illness and in some cases deaths.
But Bryan Dent, West Yorkshire Police’s drugs co-ordinator, admits the authorities are constantly playing “catch-up” as producers alter the chemical make-up of the substances they are selling to circumvent the law.
“That’s why the Home Office is looking at other forms of regulation and legislation,” he said. “When the Misuse of Drugs Act was formulated in 1971, this wasn’t an issue but we’re still having to work within the same legislative framework.”
He added: “We think shops have a moral responsibility if not a criminal responsibility.
“These substances are a significant problem – we have a big cohort of predominantly young people wanting to dabble in stuff without knowing the long-term harm they could be doing.”
There have been no confirmed deaths in Leeds from legal highs use, but police have been involved in two landmark prosecutions against traders.
Last year a Kirkgate Market stallholder was given a conditional discharge for selling a legal high to an under-18-year-old. In a separate case a shop owner was fined for selling items that could be used to prepare drugs.
Police have been holding workshops to educate other organisations about the potential dangers. Chief Inspector Phil Wiggins said: “It is vital that we have as many organisations as possible buying into our ongoing campaign to address the issue and reduce the harm these substances create.”