Headshop Hypocrisy

This is my latest article for the Voice. The views expressed here are solely my own and not reflective of any group, party or campaign I have or am involved with.

Ireland is in the grip of a national frenzy. No, it’s not NAMA, or HSE, or the evil Crystal Swing: it’s “headshops” and the “legal highs” they sell.

This moral crusade has been led by a somewhat unusual alliance of community groups, independent politicians, and political parties. Granted that many of the products on sale in these outlets are probably not good for you; but it’s the hypocrisy of the manipulative and ill-informed arguments that are problematic, preventing a real discussion on the issue from taking place.

In a country with a renowned problem, or love, of drink—depending on what way you look at it—the same moralistic crusade to shut the bars, pubs and off-licenses doesn’t exist; yet the misuse of alcohol does untold damage to individuals, families, and communities, not to mention the cost to the taxpayer.

The disparity of media coverage is much to blame. Moral compasses such as Joe Duffy have whipped up hysteria they can’t control: look at the number of attacks, including arson, on headshops, which put ordinary workers at serious risk.

The protests against the shops have received more coverage than they are worth. Larger protests calling for the nationalisation of Corrib gas, for example, are frequently ignored. These people claim to be working to protect the “youth,” when their time would be better spent campaigning for social, sporting and creative centres to provide an alternative to both drugs and drink.

One of the most frequently used arguments is that the shops are providing a “gateway to drugs.” Headshops have been around for maybe five years, yet the use of drugs has been with us a lot longer than that. Many are convinced that by shutting the shops the problem will go away; in fact they will force people back to buying from dealers—the only people who’ll benefit from the closure of the shops.

As one of the few growth areas in our economy, shops are springing up throughout the country, creating jobs and contributing much-needed taxes to a very unhealthy exchequer. It wasn’t possible to track down some figures on this, but it raises the simple question: do we want the money to benefit our country by paying for public projects or continue to flood in to the criminal world?

The ever-changing ideological chameleons, the establishment parties, continue to follow the right-wing neo-liberal economic model of non-intervention and non-regulation when it suits them, or their lobbyists. What happened to leaving markets alone and the market being above all? Why can’t they take similar stringent actions against bankers, speculators, and other fiscal miscreants?

Lest we forget, these are the parties (excluding Sinn Féin) that scaremongered the passage of Lisbon 2, which enshrines the market’s needs above all, yet they pay no heed. And if “we” are all European, why not begin to liberalise laws on drugs, like other EU countries?

This façade has raised some serious issues that need to be dealt with in a calm and relaxed fashion, not the knee-jerk reactionary response we have witnessed thus far. The prohibition of drugs appears to have failed; perhaps it’s time we as a society re-evaluated the state’s position on drugs. It’s unclear at present what the answer is, but it’s apparent that many people are willing to buy and use drugs, so we should look at how we can take control of the trade, regulate it, making it safer by introducing standards and quality control—much like alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs.

The first thing on the agenda should be the regulation and licensing of “headshops,” the introduction of a minimum age for products, and curbing opening hours in line with off-licences.

The true origins of this campaign are unclear, but it may have been a clever political ruse on behalf of someone in Fianna Fáil to distract attention from their economic incompetence and pitiful attempts to run this country. If so, it’s worked.

The greatest crime of all is that parties have rushed to the streets to protest against the “headshops” yet are unwilling to do the same against NAMA and the slashing of wages, services and benefits, not to mention the quisling-like giveaway of our natural resources.

With laws on the way to outlaw many of the products sold in these shops, much of the hype and guff is simply political opportunism on a colossal scale. To curb such hypocrisy, mandatory drug testing should be introduced for the proponents of these campaigns; this might make them less excitable.

The closing of these shops and outlawing of certain substances will not tackle the overall issue and problem of drugs in our society. It’s simply the quaint Irish attitude of sweeping it under the carpet. If history can teach us anything, this will solve nothing.

Editor Notes: The article was submitted by a young person active in his community, attempting to engage with and involve young people in standing up for better facilities at the community level. He is expressing views that are shared by many thousands of young people throughout the country and raises some interesting questions that need to be discussed and debated within communities, trade unions, and political parties. We are witnessing a growth in the use and abuse of drugs, from legal ones such as alcohol, in the rise of binge drinking, to illegal ones such as heroin. State provision for the rehabilitation of drug abusers is minimal. One thing is clear: present policies are not working. If you wish to respond to the issues raised in this article, e-mail them to cpoi[at]eircom[dot]net; fifty or a hundred words (maximum).—Editor.


20 Comments Headshop Hypocrisy

  1. Conor

    I was thinking about the hypocrisy surrounding this myself today and couldn’t agree more.
    I think a good question to put to any campaigner pushing for the closure of head shops is this: “Can you give me 3 differences between the products being sold in your local off license and a typical head shop?”
    Hopefully the former anti head shop activist will realize that both sell drugs which are both addictive and bad for your health.
    It’s like closing down one car dealer over another because people happen to die in car crashes.

  2. Rasher O' Reilly

    Very good article mo chara. Like you say fuck all debate on the subject. Head shops BAD but please don’t talk or ask questions about drugs being sold openly in our streets and the effects it causes or why people take drugs maybe just maybe its to escape the shite hole the politicians have allowed our country to become

  3. Liam Byrne

    I have to agree with most of what you say, but head-shops should not be compared (as some people try) to public-houses and legal highs cannot be compared to occasional “complications” found with standard drugs!
    There are major differences, I believe, in the TYPE of reaction that many individuals exhibit (i.e. instant severe mental reaction) following the use of SOME of the substances sold in head-shops, compared to the longer-gestation period and rarer occurrences for (for example) alcohol, cigarettes or cannabis? My argument would be that someone (?) should be able to PROVE whether the substances on sale are safe or not (They can test athletes for tiny amounts of banned substances so why can’t they find “legal-highs” in people?). If head-shop substances are “safe”, then they should be allowed trade like anyone else. If not then they should be closed immediately.
    Ignorance breeds hysteria – No hysteria necessary, just scientific evidence – PROOF that they do no more harm than a public house does! I don’t think anyone could argue with that! (Unless, of course, they have a hidden agenda, in which case this situation will be allowed to go on and on for as long as possible?)!
    On the other side of the equation, IF the substances are NOT safe, then it serves the head-shops interests that this situation should continue for as long as possible – to the detriment of those using the drugs, so the proving should be done NOW – not allowed to fester any longer!

    1. barrygruff

      Thanks for the comment Liam. I will try and keep this as short as possible.

      I’m not claiming that what is on sale in these shops is safe or safer than what is readily available illegally, I just feel there is a real need to look into the ‘drugs’ issue in general to find a way forward that’s all.
      I don’t know you (I get the impression you’re genuinely concerned with the safety or not of these products) or all campaigners against headshops but my main argument is with politicians and chancers who have jumped on the bandwagon to serve only their own interests for publicity and notoriety, especially when if it’s a public health issue many would be served better by campaigning for the resignation of Mary Harney or working or supporting people or groups involved in providing facilities for young people.

      I couldn’t condone the random drug testing of individuals, surely that’s an infringement of someone’s human rights?

      Please excuse an incoherence as I’m have a bad dose at the mo.

  4. Mark Mc

    Nice to hear a different side to the story. I’m not pro-headshops. In fact I think the damage these substances are causing psychologically, ie psychosis, paranoid delusion, addiction and so on, are quite worrying and we will not know the full extent of the negative side effects for some time. But I do however fully agree that the protestors are … See morehypocrits. They probably go down to the pub after their ill informed campaigns for a pint. And in that lies my biggest grievance. I hate the way alcohol isn’t treated with the same cynical eye as illegal drugs are. Alcohol is a drug, just cause it’s legal doesn’t make it problem-free. There have been far more women and children abused by alcoholic fathers, more people murdered by drink drivers, and more fuckin idiots falling out of pubs and hospitalising innocent people in drunken brawls.
    But so too have the headshop users got their problems and abusive users!
    Fair enough picket outside the headshops for better regulations, but don’t forget to stop on your way past the pub to highlight their problems too!!!

  5. barrygruff

    Thanks very much for all your comments, interesting responses here and on facebook etc.

    Huge variations, but one clear message seems to be that most agree with my view on the hypocrisy particularly with politicians and they would be better placed sorting out more pressing issues like the economy than chasing publicity with what they see as populist issues.

  6. Liam Byrne

    There isn’t a politician in this country who will back the head-shops to stay open, even “Ming” Flanagan who wants to legalise cannabis for pain relief, doesn’t say that the drug should be available in head-shops. But the people who have most to gain from PROVING that so called “legal highs” are safe is the Head-Shop owners – and their silence is deafening!
    I think the point has been clearly made by you above – it’s the safety of the SUBSTANCES sold that is in question, not the rights of any adult to do what they want (within the law)! The problem is that using alcohol as a defence for head shop drugs is spurious! There is ample evidence to prove that some people get adverse experiences from using alcohol, Panadol and Aspro (for example) but there are no COMPARATIVE statistics for Snow, Skunk etc. I’m told that these substances don’t leave any trace in the bloodstream, so there is no-one who can say how many people, per hundred or per thousand users, experiences a bad trip! That’s the problem – no comparison! If someone could say that 1 in 5000 people have a bad trip on Snow, compared to 1 in 4,500 on Aspro, then Snow is “SAFER” than Aspro!! But we don’t have that information!
    I’m not for OR against head-shops, but I am against ignorance – from any side. If we had clear proof, whichever way, then we can make up our own minds. In the meantime DON’T wait for the politicians?
    Your argument for an INTELLIGENT discussion on the “drug problem” (legal and illegal) in Ireland is valid – but I don’t think it’s seen as important enough!

    1. barrygruff

      I agree that headshop owners benefit from remaining open as laws etc. are unclear, if they shut however drugs dealers will benefit, catch 22. I personally would be all for taking drugs out of the control of both differing capitalists who have no care for anything but profit (generally), how this would happen is another discussion and I’m delighted you would welcome an ‘intelligent’ discussion on the drug problem.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the article.

  7. irishelectionliterature

    Regarding picketing shops, from what I gather the Roscommon crowd were there for two reasons , firstly to protest at the shops pressence but secondly and more importantly (from my point of view) to act as a deterrent to people to go in there.
    I know when I was younger, if I saw one of the neighbours protesting in this fashion, I wouldn’t go within a million miles of the shop.
    Those protesters knew that if people wanted stuff they could head off to Longford or the like, but the also knew that there mere pressence was off putting enough to stop some people trying the stuff.
    Of course thats a country town and its a different kettle of fish in Dublin or the other cities.

    There is also the matter that what was available in the headshops shocked many of us. I had been walking by them for years and never had an idea that these substances were being sold there.

  8. biewan

    OH, I’ve had enough! I had a huge, long wall of text, but no-one is gonna read it.

    I’m in my 30s. I can’t buy a drink at 10.01pm to take home to my house. I can’t pick and eat any mushroom I want. I can’t buy or grow any plant I want. I can’t say that the god half the country believes in is nothing more than a sun worshipping legend.

    If I was older, and born to the right parents, I could borrow 100 million, buy worthless land, and walk away without paying. I could hold a cabinet job for a year, and have a pension for life. I could be a kiddie-fiddling priest, or a bishop that harbours them, and I’d be ok. I could get tax breaks for the millions I swindle out of ordinary folk, or live abroad and pay no tax, and complain about people who “steal” their music. I could be a TD who owns a pub, or a councillor taking planning bribes. I could be running the healthcare system into the ground, without anyone saying a word.

    This ain’t Sparta, it’s Ireland, and it’s pissing me off.

  9. Liam Byrne

    Your points are all valid biewan, but they have noting to do with head-shops! We can argue about the problems of this country ’till the cows-come-home, it won’t change a single fact! Head- Shop problems will only be solved when they are discussed on their merits (or demerits) and compared to similar problems using statistical analysis. There are no statistics (so far as I am aware) on head shops or head shop drugs – so we’re left talking about everything else except the point of the argument! Closing head-shops won’t stop the problem. Education might – but we’re a long way off that yet! 🙁
    BTW there are votes in drugs, but none in druggies – does that tell you anything!

  10. biewan

    What do you mean “hey have noting to do with head-shops!”? The nanny state that we’re living in has everything to do with the banning of headshop products. I didn’t think I had to spell it out, evidently I do.

    The reason they’re banned is because “they” don’t like drugs. They don’t want me, a grown adult, to decide what I want to put in my body. This blinds them to the benefits a highly regulated and taxed recreational drugs market could bring. This fear of “psychotropics” is pretty much misplaced. If they can’t keep an eye on their kids, does that mean I can’t enjoy a weed alternative? Apparently, it does. Apparently, they want people taking coke and e too.

    I use weed because of a serious car accident. I’m allergic to most of the pain meds the doctor could prescribe longterm, and the others are highly addictive. So, I can get addicted to vicodin or oxy, or I can smoke a j, and be able to walk or lie down without being in too much pain. When I found a legal alternative, I jumped at the chance, who wants to be a criminal? But when the government sneaked this new legislation in, they effectively made me a criminal, as I’m looking at the remains of some contraband right now. And no, I won’t throw it out at the whim of some rich politician who’s far removed from normal Irish society.

    So tell me then, how this bandwagon-jumping, joe duffy driven mob-ruled country and its leaders has nothing to do with it. Fact of the matter is, without any consultation or science, the government criminalised thousands of adults overnight. It’s like there’s a large, voiceless minority in this country that gets shat upon at every opportunity, and no-one gives a fuck.

    So you can argue about semantics all you want, it won’t make any difference until our society decides what century they want to live in. As for me, I’ll be getting it online, way, way cheaper than it was in the headshops. But I’ll say this: if criminals get it at anywhere near the wholesale prices I can get, they are gonna be rich! If they sell fake weed at the same price the headshops did, they can make 11k profit on 1,500. That’s right, eleven thousand euro profit on a grand and a half.

    “BTW there are votes in drugs, but none in druggies – does that tell you anything!”

    It tells me your education failed to show you how to pose a question.

  11. Pac

    heated discussion alert!
    The shops are still open and apparently they have new stock replacing the old ‘now’ banned stuff with substances which are not illegal.

  12. Liam Byrne

    I think you missed my point biewan – you go ahead and do anything you want – that’s none of my business! 🙁

    For anyone who IS interested, it seems to me that what is needed urgently is a National Conference on the Use (or Misuse?) of Drugs (legal and illegal) in Ireland? To find out why these shops suddenly sprung up, what they sold, who they sold it to and WHY, why (according to Eurobarometer) we are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, why some drugs might be made legally available to people who need them and many other similar things.

    A small window of opportunity exists, with the headshops issue still a hot-topic in the press, for everyone to lobby the politicians to get the Government to hold the Conference! Soon the furore will have died down and will be forgotten again, until the headshops make good on their threat “gone, for now”!

    Should everyone email their County Politicians on the issue? Would it work? Is this just a waste of time? Is this really a national issue or a personal choice one? Does anyone really care, should anyone care – or should we only be interested in the freedom to do what WE want? Is this a personal choice question or a national emergency? That’s how this discussion began! There might be an opportunity for something to be done, but it won’t last long!!

  13. biewan

    Ok, I just said you can buy a kilo for 1500 euro, and sell it for 11,500, and you don’t know why there’s loads of headshops? This is what I mean, people have their opinion, and ignore the facts, which is why the Joe Duffy Brigade run the country.

    If there were actual credible studies ran, I’m sure if they said that these substances were safe, the government would still keep them banned, just like the UK government ignored the scientific findings on weed. Any stoner will tell you that smoking weed changes your thinking, it stops you believing the load of shite we’re fed daily by politicians for one, and I think that has more to do with it than you think. A conference simply will not work, as most people who use drugs recreationally are afraid to lift their head above the parapet, and you’d end up with a load of parents groups and the government dictating to adults again.

    I don’t see this issue going away. Mexico are following Portugal in legalising many drugs, with very stiff opposition from the US, while the Netherlands are trying to roll back on legalisation. It’s weird, Mexico is trying to stop the thousands of drug related murders, and Holland is trying to placate the religious right, dogma over science in 2010-happy days.

    For anyone that IS interested:



  14. Eugene Mc Cartan

    In the June issue of Socialist Voice there will be a further contribution to the debate around the head shops. What is certainly clear is the current government strategy is clearly not working and is not reducing the abuse of drugs either legal or illegal ones.

    Even those who want to get their lives back together and get of whatever drug is wrecking their lives be it drink or heroin etc there are to few place to go to find help. We end up with thousands men and women strung out on methadone.

    Keep up the good work, the solution to drug abuse like other social problems, like unemployment, poverty, will only be found by people coming together to discuss and debate the issue affecting themselves, their families and their communities.

    We have to find our own answers to these problems because the ones being imposed by the government and the mass media will only make our problems worse. They want to make their problems our problem. They want us to pay the price for their mistakes.

    Given the state of the country, social dislocation and social alienation and all that flows from that will only grow and get worse. We have to stop thinking like them and begin to think more about our families and communities. We need to think not just about ME but more about WE and US.

  15. Pingback: Headshops: A Response « barrygruff

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