Head Shops and High Times

As the contentious issue of so-called ‘head shops’ selling legal highs continues to generate column inches, Leanne Waters sets out to see just how much of an impact those businesses have had in UCDIn recent weeks, the Irish public has been bombarded with various debates on what are known as “head shops” in Ireland. Such head shops cater to and provide legal products similar to illegal substances such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. With new stores and franchises on the rise and opening around the country, the matter is beginning to seem unavoidable among the general population.With so much attention being drawn to this tremendously contentious topic, both critics and head shop enthusiasts alike are crawling out of the woodwork and voicing their opinions. Such opinions have being pushed to the limit of late, however, with arson attacks being carried out on stores in Dublin. Before even touching on this matter, I sought the opinion of those funding the business: two regular head shop users. Both attend UCD and were more than willing to comment on their involvement in the enterprise.One Second Year Arts student talks me through prices.“I wouldn’t buy stuff every week, but I reckon it would be every two to three weeks. It’s good to stock up every now and again. Mostly, I would buy the legal weed but I’ve tried pills, as well as the legal coke too. I would spend about €50 every time I go, but it depends really. The weed – it’s called Smoke XXX – it’s, like, €30. But you can buy it singularly in joints for about five euro each. The cocaine stuff is around €30 for, like, two grams, I think. And as well, you can get four pills for around €10, I think.”When asked about how he became involved with head shops, one Third Year Science student comments: “I started off with using illegal stuff but then I just wanted to try legal because of all the hype, I suppose. It’s just easier to go through the head shops obviously, and you’re not as worried about getting caught because you’re technically not doing anything wrong. The highs are pretty much the same; depending on what you get, the illegal stuff would be stronger, I guess. But the fact that it’s easier just makes it less hassle to get. If you’re caught with illegal stuff, I reckon you’d have it taken off you and possibly end up in court for possession. But I’m not sure, I’ve never been caught. With the head shop stuff, you’re just safer for now.”Recently, however, said head shops have been greatly in the limelight. Most notably, last month saw organised arson attacks being carried out on known Dublin head shops. Shops under attack have included one Nirvana store on Capel Street, and the Happy Hippy Store on North Frederick Street. As the controversy surrounding the rapid growth of such shops is ongoing, it is now being called into question whether store owners should retain an operating licence.On this subject, our Arts student mentions that “you know that whoever is organising arson hits have to be people who are just pissed off about the shops being around. I mean, when you think about it, it must be a dangerous business to be in – even if it is legal. People have been buying and selling drugs on the streets long before they opened, so now you’re going to have drug dealers and people selling the illegal stuff up in arms that they’re losing out on business. As regards critics of head shops, I do completely understand their objections to them. I mean, bottom line, we’re dealing with drugs here, no matter what you call it. They have the head shop information online, for example. They sell something called ‘Ministry’, it’s kind of like legal ecstasy, and they’re sold as plant feeder. But honestly, we may as well call a spade a spade here.”Despite their obvious enthusiasm, however, it appears that even head shop advocates succumb to the stigma that is naturally attached to the industry. Both agree that they avoid going to a head shop during the day and prefer later hours after midnight. “The problem is, they’re all based in really obvious places, where you know people. You hardly want people who know you to see you stroll into a head shop in the afternoon. It’s not like they don’t know what you’re probably getting in there. I’d say shops would definitely get most of their business at night and after midnight.”With this apparent stigma in mind, I decided to turn my attention to the opinions of other UCD students. Amidst my rummaging of groups chatting about exams and individuals puffing away in the Arts smoking area, I received a fruitful mixture of opinions on the matter. One mature student commented told me they had “a 17-year-old nephew, and I know that I would be horrified to find out he was doing drugs at all. I don’t like the idea of head shops but the fact of the matter is that they exist. And, in one sense, I think I would prefer my nephew to buy something from a store as opposed to a street dealer. You don’t want your children socializing with those kinds of people and God only knows what’s gone into a substance a teenager has bought on the street.”Another student remarks: “Do you not think it would just be better to legalize certain drugs? I mean, class C drugs like hash have been legalised in plenty of places in Europe. It would mean that the authorities could monitor what’s happening and then control it. They can’t really control what’s being hidden from them.”They varying arguments seem ongoing, with other students taking notably strong anti-head shop stances.“I think the attacks aren’t particularly called for. But having said that, I do agree that head shops just shouldn’t be a part of our society. I just think they completely bring down the reputations of the areas they’re in. With the amount of tourists passing through, it hardly gives a town a good name if there’s a head shop situated there. And the same with the Irish public generally: do we want to be known to have head shops on every corner? To be honest, I just think they’re a disgrace. If you think about it, people don’t have a clue what they’re putting into their bodies and they don’t know how it will affect them. By having head shops around, we’re only encouraging people to get involved with drugs.”The Minister for Drugs, John Curran TD, is apparently now taking steps in an effort to have a wide range of legalised substances banned within head shops. Though the arguments surrounding the hot topic are many and indeed fevered, my own favour generally falls to the opposition of such head shops. Put quite simply, it seems that this now-lucrative business has thus far contributed nothing to our society, aside from mounting controversy. Moreover, the stores naturally add fuel in promoting the usage of any drug form, be it legal or otherwise.Though it is obviously fair to argue that they allow for better monitoring of the trade, it seems to me that this would only extend to a small portion of the industry itself. With drug problems and gangland crimes already rife across the country, the recent explosion of head shops in Ireland only seems to be adding to the ammunition on this subject, with hostilities growing every day – evident by the aforementioned attacks. Ultimately, head shops often serve only to undermine the significance of taking drugs and, as one student remarked, “If you’re willing to smoke weed from a store, what’s to say you wouldn’t smoke weed off the street?”