TOUGH penalties must be imposed on ‘head shops’ selling legal highs which have effects similar to or worse effects than hard drugs.
The message from justice secretary Chris Grayling comes after he visited Portsmouth and heard some substances available were more dangerous than heroin – and were being bought by schoolchildren.
He was also shocked to see a ‘cannabis lollipop’ on sale in the window of Hedonic, in Albert Road, Southsea, which he feared could have unpleasant side effects.
A sign in the shop’s window states all the products on sale are legal and will not be sold to customers who want to use them illegally.
But campaigners warn something must be done to better enforce head shops so youngsters are not put at risk.
Mr Grayling told The News during his visit yesterday: ‘I do not think these shops should be allowed to trade in this way.
‘We can’t have shops on the high street selling dangerous drugs.
‘What has really struck me from talking to people is that some of these drugs are having a worse effect on people than heroin and cannabis.
‘If we have got legal drugs having a worse effect than illegal substances and they are being sold in shops, then something serious needs to be done about it.’
Mr Grayling added: ‘We have really got to tighten up the law so you can’t simply adjust a substance bit by bit.
‘My view is that a synthetic version of a drug should be illegal.
‘We should not see cannabis lollipops on our high streets as we have done this afternoon.’
It comes after police and crime commissioner Simon Hayes called for the law to be toughened up on head shops as another one opened in Havant on Monday.
Yet Mr Grayling warned a blanket ban on legal highs – also known as psychoactive substances – and a crackdown on head shops would not come ahead of the general election.
Mr Grayling said: ‘It’s got to be an early priority after the general election.
‘It’s not pushing it into the long grass, it’s about addressing a serious and growing problem properly.
‘We don’t have time three months before the election to put the legislation in.’
But one father, who has seen the devastating impact legal highs have had on his son, believes something must be done sooner.
The parent, who did not wish to be named, said: ‘I want this to be sorted out before the election.
‘It’s terrible these head shops are still legal, it’s not right a new one has opened in Havant as well.
‘It seems councils are just allowing new head shops to open because they don’t want places to become derelict.
‘These legal highs are just killing our kids.’
As part of his tour, Mr Grayling visited ANA, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Albert Road, to hear more about its work.
ANA founder Libby Reid said legal high use was a ‘huge problem’.
‘Most of our clients have some experience taking legal highs,’ she said.
‘It’s a huge problem.
‘We have got schoolchildren queuing up to buy them which is serious.
‘The problem is when people come to us and have taken a legal high. Knowing what is in that substance is the problem.’
She called for Portsmouth City Council to hand over more funding to help clients kick their habits.
Former crack and heroin addict Richard Pipkin, 42, of Portsmouth, goes to ANA and wants to support people who have a legal high addiction.
‘Head shops should be banned,’ he said.
‘I have seen school kids buy legal highs and it’s not good.
‘I have seen people in a worse state than I was taking that stuff, and yet you can buy that from a shop.’
He added: ‘If you see some of the labelling on the packaging, they may say the product is a form of incense and you should not smoke it.
‘But once a ban is put on them, the labelling is changed to make sure they’re within the law and it’s been going on for years like that.’
During a visit to The News in November, Home secretary Theresa May revealed a blanket ban on selling legal highs – already in place in Ireland – is being considered by the government.
The government also wants to ban the use of a substance based on the impact it has on the brain rather than its chemical makeup, as they are then tweaked to ensure they stay legal.
Parents and councillors in Portsmouth have repeatedly highlighted the dangers drugs –legal and illegal – are having on society.
Cllr Donna Jones, leader of the city council, has written to the government calling for a total ban.
Mr Grayling also believes there have been problems in UK prisons due to legal highs.
‘We have seen a huge surge in assaults in prisons, and yet there is no obvious reason for it,’ he said. ‘It’s not just happening in the prisons where staff are being cut.
‘It’s becoming clear to me talking to staff that legal highs are becoming a large part of the problem.’
Flick Drummond, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Portsmouth South, set up Mr Grayling’s visit.
She said: ‘It is very disappointing that another head shop has opened.
‘These so called legal highs are dangerous substances.
‘I saw the evidence of what it does when I attended Rebound, a support group for families whose children have taken these horrible substances. I am delighted the secretary of state for justice came down.
‘He has gone back with a very clear understanding from parents about the effects of legal highs. It will be something at the top of my agenda should I be elected.’