Around 15 months ago, Blackburn's main head shop stopped selling legal highs. After pressure from former MP Jack Straw, Trading Standards, police and the local paper, Smoker's World packed in their trade of research chemicals and synthetic substitutes – the idea being the consumption of these substances would plummet if they weren't so easily available.
Virtually overnight, however, the shop's legal high trade had been incorporated into the business of a local gang of class A drug dealers.
According to a senior investigator in the region who spoke to VICE, the bulk of the shop's legal high stock was quickly sold off on the cheap, at £1 a bag, to the drug-dealing outfit, a family notorious in the area for selling a range of drugs including crack and heroin. (Sanjay Asal, owner of Smoker's World, denied selling off his stock to the drug dealers, although he admitted the family had previously bought in bulk from him.)
Taking advantage of the gap in the market that had been conveniently opened up for them, the drug dealers augmented their existing involvement in legal high sales (they sold under-the-counter from a high street "charity" shop they ran) by setting up a 24/7 delivery business using Facebook and mobile phones. The lion's share of these sales involved synthetic weed, a product with a big following among Blackburn's disenfranchised teenagers.
The gang used a team of young runners to ferry around gram snap bags containing a mix of branded product and powdered synthetic weed bought from a firm of wholesalers. This being northern England, the gang even offered free pies with every delivery of legal highs.
Deals were sold for sub-head shop prices – £5 instead of £7.50 a gram – to pull in new customers and undercut what little competition remained in Blackburn, in the form of a head shop situated outside the city centre. Customers coming into the gang's charity shop were told to wait at a number 14 bus stop, where transactions would be carried out.
So the upshot was that while the authorities claimed a scalp in their very public war against psychoactive drugs being so freely available in a high street shop, the sale of the bulk of Blackburn's legal highs – especially to the most problematic users – was transferred into the hands of the local heroin and crack-selling gang.
"As soon as the main head shop stopped selling NPS [new psychoactive substances], this family developed a monopoly in the trade," said the senior investigator. "They were knocking out synthetic cannabis to the kids of the parents they were selling heroin and crack to.
"But this isn't like weed; this stuff is more like the new version of solvents, the new glue. These were vulnerable kids, the same group of 14 to 18-year-olds who would always be involved with drugs – and this is what they were all using."
What happened in Blackburn could have major implications for the government's brand new Psychoactive Substances Act, which will become law in April. When the legislation kicks in, Britain's estimated 500 head shops, newsagents and takeaways will be banned from selling any kind of NPS. As happened in Ireland when a similar law was introduced in 2010, the number of head shops in Britain will likely plummet. They will either close or have to find something else, such as e-cigarettes, to drive profits.
At this point, the government will be thinking it's accomplished its mission; one of the main objectives of the Psychoactive Substance Act was to do away with the embarrassing problem of otherwise innocent schoolchildren and teenagers legally being able to buy powerful drugs from shops in their local high street. Job done.
However, what events in Blackburn show is that stopping head shops from selling drugs will have little impact on the kind of people who really drive the trade, and who also happen to have easy access to existing, illegal drug-selling networks. What's more, it will herald a payday for existing drug sellers around Britain, who will gladly take up the slack of the trade in new psychoactive substances.
When I spoke to Sanjay Asal, the owner of Smoker's World (and one of the most reputable sellers of NPS in Blackburn before he stopped selling them, according to VICE's source), he told me that before he stopped selling NPS, a bad atmosphere had grown between him and the family of drug dealers, who appeared eager for him to leave Blackburn's synthetic weed trade to them.
"It was turning into a bit of a turf war," he said. "They would sometimes harass my customers and take their drugs off them, saying they should switch suppliers. I'm glad I'm out of it, to be honest, but when I stopped selling, their business went 24/7."
Asal told me that instead of selling his remaining legal high stock to the local drug dealing gang, as the senior investigator had suggested, he shifted it at cost price, or less, to regular customers. He said he had come to the decision to halt sales of the very lucrative packets of synthetic weed and cocaine because of the effects the increasingly stronger products were having on his customers. They had become like "zombies", he said.
In Blackburn, like in many parts of the UK, there is a big problem with young, marginalised people getting fucked up on synthetic weed, day-in, day-out. And it's not just out in the wild; the drug has become such an integral part of prison life that prison leavers throughout the UK are being paid to re-offend in order to smuggle the stuff back in.
On the streets of Blackburn, synthetic weed spliffs are sold for 75p to £1.50 a pop, so some of the younger children can buy them on tick until their pocket money arrives. The dealers selling it for £5 to £10 a gram have found a captive market among people who value the drug's low price and brain-twisting potency: jobless and marginalised young criminals, alongside former and current heroin users who are using NPS as they do super-strength lager: drugs which deliver a good bang for your buck.
Come April – when, like in Blackburn, dealers won't have to compete against the high street head shops – synthetic weed, like the government-banned mephedrone before it, will increasingly become part of the ever-lengthening menu of substances available from your local street dealer.
Alistair Bohm of the drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction pointed out further evidence to suggest the Psychoactive Substances Act is going to end up simultaneously doing street dealers a favour while also damaging society's most vulnerable.
"During Operation Lantern in Kent [in 2014], stores were banned from selling 'legal highs' for a six-month period," he said. "While this led to a reduction in some young people's usage, we became aware that the more frequent users of synthetic [cannabis] – who were disproportionately in local authority care or engaged in the criminal justice system – were now going to street dealers. That has to be a concern with the new legislation: it might reduce the number of people using NPS as a whole, but for populations who are already vulnerable and facing social exclusion, it could put them at increased risk of harm from dealing with the street and online market."
If the government's NPS laws are to present any real promise of restricting supply to some of the most vulnerable people in society, in and out of prison, smothering the head shop trade won't do it. A deeper impact can only be made further upstream, by using the new law to target a growing number of outfits wholesaling synthetic weed on British soil, whose businesses will become far more vulnerable to prosecution.
The specialist I spoke to estimates there are "tens, if not hundreds" of underground labs "from some quite sophisticated operations to garden sheds" in the UK where NPS products are being made at their secondary stage. The active ingredient, manufactured in China, is imported to the UK and sprayed onto inert plant matter or powder, before being packaged or served up in baggies.
"The point to learn from Blackburn is that stopping head shops from selling NPS may have stopped some younger experimenters," the investigator told me, "but it didn't stop supply to those worst affected. It just changed who and how it was supplied."
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