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LGA - New ban on 'legal highs' which devastate lives backed by councils

The new ban on so-called ‘legal highs' - which have caused multiple deaths and seen users self-harm, including cutting their wrists with an electric carving knife – has been backed by councils who say it will help them continue cracking down on the devastating harm they cause.

The Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force today, will criminalise the production, distribution, sale and supply of psychoactive substances. Offenders face up to seven years in prison.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, supports the legislation to tackle ‘legal highs' which have been directly linked to poisoning, seizures, kidney damage, and the deaths of 144 people in the UK in 2014 alone.

Council officers and their partners have seen the unpredictable and horrific impact of psychoactive substances on their areas. As well as the devastating health effects, users of the substances have carried out harrowing acts of self-harm while under their influence. These include:

  • A young man cutting his neck and pushing a knife through his arm.
  • A young man cutting his wrists with an electric carving knife.
  • A 15-year-old girl scratching ‘kill me' on her thigh.

Trading standards teams at councils nationwide have worked tirelessly to use the limited powers available to them to prevent the sale of psychoactive substances. This has included seizing psychoactive substances from sale, closing down shops selling the intoxicating substances, issuing on-the-spot fines and securing numerous related prosecutions.

But none of these previous powers available were specific to psychoactive substances, making it much harder and more time consuming to tackle sellers of the substances.

This new blanket ban on the sale and supply of psychoactive substances will make it much easier for councils and the police to tackle the issue.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

"Legal highs are a scourge on society and shatter lives. People using these intoxicating substances are putting their lives, and those of others, at risk by consuming these untested chemicals which can have devastating and unpredictable consequences, including death.

"From today ‘legal highs' will be as illegal as drugs banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act that they tried to mimic. The new blanket ban on psychoactive substances should help to reduce anti-social behaviour linked to their use which has been harming communities and blighting town and city centres for residents and visitors for too long.

"Councils have made every effort to crack down on these substances and the unscrupulous traders selling them, which has seen so-called ‘head shops' closed down, intoxicating substances seized, on-the-spot fines issued and successful prosecutions.

"However, this work relied on laws designed for very different purposes, making it much harder for councils and the police to tackle the problem.

"Councils have long called for new powers to stop the sale of new psychoactive substances. This blanket ban emphasises the dangers these substances pose and anyone caught producing, distributing, selling or supplying them could now receive a prison sentence, which should serve as a strong deterrent.

"Councils will work with the police on this new ban to protect our communities and highlight the risks of these substances to our residents, especially young people.

"We are aware of the risk that the sale of psychoactive substances will now move onto the ‘dark web' – a network of untraceable online activity and hidden websites - and would welcome the Government putting additional resources into tackling the online threat."

CASE STUDIES

North Somerset Council

In September 2014, North Somerset Council's Trading Standards Service was alerted to a growing number of serious incidents in Weston-super-Mare involving young people suffering harm as a result of using ‘legal highs'. Evidence was collated from police intelligence, ambulance service referrals, charities and voluntary organisations working with vulnerable groups. The evidence on the impact of using these products included:

  • A young man cut his neck and pushed a knife through his arm.
  • A young man cut his wrists with an electric carving knife.
  •  A 15-year-old girl scratched ‘kill me' on her thigh.
  • A young man suffered paranoia causing him to run into and around his neighbour's flat wielding a knife and causing the female occupant and young children severe distress.

In April, May and June 2015 the council's Trading Standards Service, supported by police, seized psychoactive products from two shops after they refused to withdraw them from sale, as requested, on a previous visit. The seizure was made using powers under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005. As a result, one of the shops ceased trading and the other changed its use and stopped selling the products. Since then reports of ‘legal high' related incidents have dropped to virtually nil.

Lincoln Council

In April 2015 Lincoln Council became the first local authority to ban the use of ‘legal highs' in the city centre by introducing a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO). The ban, which covers the consumption of intoxicating substances - including alcohol and new psychoactive substances (NPS) - was backed by 97 per cent of respondents to a public consultation. Two shops selling legal highs in Lincoln have closed since the PSPO came into force – one shops closed voluntarily after repeat visits by the council and the second closed after the council issued a Community Protection Notice. In 2015 the council recorded 324 surrenders of substances and secured seven ‘legal high' prosecutions for breaches of the PSPO. Between January and March 2016, there have been 23 surrenders of substances and 14 breaches of the PSPO – none involving ‘legal highs'. Police reported incidents involving legal highs fell 27 per cent – from 156 in April-September 2014 to 113 in April-September 2015. Since the PSPO came into force, users of needle exchanges declaring legal highs as the (or one of the) substances being used has fallen by 78 per cent.

Kent County Council

In December 2014 Kent County Council's Trading Standards team succeeded in a ground-breaking court case which saw an order made for more than 600 ‘legal highs' seized at four shops to be forfeited permanently after magistrates ruled they were unsafe. A follow-up visit in 2015 to 16 town centre shops originally targeted by Kent and Medway Trading Standards found four shops closed and eight of the others having no relevant substances on the premises. Three of the shops where NPS were found had just 79 packets between them; the fourth had a more substantial haul. Three people have died in Kent from taking ‘legal highs'.

Nottinghamshire County Council

In 2015 Nottinghamshire County Council's Trading Standards team seized more than 900 packs of untested drugs with names including ‘Go-Caine', ‘Herbal Haze' and ‘Atomic Bomb'.
The council's Trading Standards, Community Safety and Public Health teams have formed a working group with partners including the police, health and voluntary organisations to address issues arising from the use of ‘legal highs' across the county including implementation of the new legislation. Its Community Safety team was consulted by Mansfield District Council earlier this year and backed its plans to introduce a PSPO in June 2016 which would ban the use and sale of ‘new drugs' in Mansfield,  and it has also just been consulted on similar proposals by Bassetlaw District Council to cover Retford town centre and Worksop town centre which it has also backed.

NOTES TO EDITOR

  • Legal highs, which can be smoked, snorted or swallowed, are substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/drugs/Pages/legalhighs.aspx 
  • Legal highs have been linked to the deaths of 144 people in the UK in 2014 alone and have been directly linked to poisoning and emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-law-to-tackle-legal-highs-commences-later-this-month

http://www.talktofrank.com/drug/legal-highs

  • The Republic of Ireland, which introduced a ban in 2010, has seen a decline in hospital admissions related to the use of legal highs and near elimination of ‘head shops' which sell them.
  • Local authorities, which have overall responsibility for public health, spend around 25 per cent (£760 million) of their health budget on drug and alcohol misuse. The introduction of the ban should reduce this expenditure, allowing councils to use the funds to tackle other public health priorities.
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