The owner of a so-called ‘head shop’ in Leeds has accused police of a disgraceful waste of money after a judge ruled there was no evidence to support his landmark drugs conviction.
Hassan Abbas and shop worker Owen Allerton were successfully prosecuted last year over the sale of products including bongs, plastic bags and grinders, at Fantasia on Ludgate Hill in the city centre.
The goods, which carried motifs resembling cannabis leaves, can be sold legally.
But, in the first case of its kind anywhere in the country, Mr Abbas and Mr Allerton were found guilty at Leeds Magistrates’ Court of supplying items they believed would be used to take drugs.
However, after an appeal costing Mr Abbas £40,000, a judge at Leeds Crown Court has quashed the convictions, saying there was no evidence that they could have known what their customers would do.
Mr Abbas said: “I think it’s an absolute disgrace that the police have wasted so much money on this. They have had officers writing very lengthy statements, giving expert evidence, spending time in court at a time when the police are supposedly facing massive cutbacks.”
I think it’s an absolute disgrace that the police have wasted so much money on this.Hassan Abbas
Fantasia, which has been in business selling what Mr Abbas describes as smoking equipment and giftware since 2009, was searched in May 2013.
The appeal court heard items carrying the cannabis leaf logo were seized, while identical items which did not have such images were left behind.
Mr Abbas and Mr Allerton were charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act in what police at the time called an “innovative” test case.
But Mr Abbas, who was fined £800 in court and ordered to pay £520 in costs, said: “There was no evidence that we had committed any crime. The products were there, on display – they weren’t hidden away, we weren’t selling stuff under the counter.
“They had been bought completely legally, on invoices, from UK companies that are VAT registered.
“If these products were illegal, why would you come to the person at the bottom of the chain? If you really want to stamp this out, why not go to the top of the tree and cut off the supply?”
Appeal court judge Neil Clark agreed he had not broken the law.
He said: “It is quite clear that parliament, in drafting this legislation, did not outlaw the sale of items of this type.
“They only outlawed the sale of such items by somebody believing that they were to be used for the administration of an unlawful, of a controlled drug, and there is not any evidence of that belief here.”
He added: “We do not think there is any evidence which can go beyond this stage and the charges ought to be dismissed.”
Supt Sam Millar, of West Yorkshire Police, said police respected the judgement but made “no apologies” for attempts to “target the trade in so-called ‘legal highs’”.
She added: “These high street head shops operate on the margins of legality in selling potentially harmful substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs and which have been linked to deaths and serious illness.
“New national legislation is currently being prepared to address the issue but in the meantime we have had to use existing legislation in an innovative way.
“We remain very concerned that these substances are being openly sold in the city and that this makes some people, particularly the young, think that they are safe to take.
“We will continue to do all we can to raise awareness of the health risks associated with these substances and use whatever means are available to tackle the issue.”
In a separate development, Mr Abbas has withdrawn ‘legal highs’ from sale following warnings from the police and Leeds City Council.
Leeds Anti-Social Behaviour Team said there had been complaints of people consuming substances in doorways and phone boxes and causing disruption to other traders.
Mr Abbas was given a warning notice explaining he could be shut down if complaints continued.
His landlord, who was also informed of the potential action, in turn contacted Mr Abbas, who withdrew the items from sale.
Supt Sam Millar, who heads Safer Leeds, said: “We are pleased the owner has now removed these substances from sale after receiving our warning about anti-social behaviour. The type of behaviour that was being reported included people being slumped in doorways, using phone boxes to prepare substances for consumption and using foul and abusive language.”
“We remain very concerned that these substances are being sold openly by other ‘head shops’ in the city and on the internet and that this makes some people, particularly the young, feel they can take them without risk.”
Mr Abbas said he had complied with the request because he didn’t want to face court again.He added: “We believe the anti-social behaviour was nothing to do with us and since we stopped selling these products the problem hasn’t gone away.”