50.An expected impact of the Bill is the closure of ‘head shops’. These are the main high street outlet for NPS and the Home Office has estimated that there are around 335 in the UK. We have also heard of the sale of NPS from fast food outlets, newsagents, corner shops, and flea markets. The Home Office said that they and enforcement organisations “are alert to possible displacement once the Bill is enacted as high street outlets close”. Newcastle City Council highlighted the strong branding and profitability of NPS which will provide incentives on both the demand and supply side for the market to continue away from the high street. Mr Tim-Jake Gluckman thought this would result in “the NPS scene [becoming] something of a jungle” as the current, fairly transparent, retailing and wholesaling disappears.
51.We have received conflicting evidence about how NPS users, who wish to continue using drugs, might change their behaviour. For example, Portsmouth NPS Working Group did not believe there would be a large shift to the use of drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (e.g. heroin, cocaine, ecstasy), whilst Dr Richard Stevenson said that nearly all users of NPS already had used, or continue to use, these controlled drugs. Centrepoint told us that those who were addicted to NPS would risk danger and criminal activity to obtain NPS or other illegal drugs. The Edinburgh Division of Police Scotland believed that it was inevitable that entrenched habitual users would shift to controlled substances, which came with high risks. For example, if users reverted to heroin there was a danger of overdose as their tolerance would have lowered. Therefore, a harm reduction strategy was required.
52.We were also told that the market for NPS would adapt to the new laws. YMCA England said that while NPS would be harder to access they would become available via alternative means, most probably known dealers. Newcastle City Council told us that traditional drug markets had already started to sell NPS in parts of the country. Jeremy Sare, Director for Communications and Operations of the Angelus Foundation, told us “dealers who are dealing now in substances like cocaine and ecstasy […] will be tempted to take some of the market”.
53.The ACMD raised with the Home Office its concern that closing ‘head shops’ would result in the market moving to illegal dealing networks, which had been seen when mephedrone was banned. They suggested that targeted ‘demand reduction’ information, education, brief interventions and treatment might be required to prevent users switching to other, potentially more harmful, substances or incurring problems due to a rapid cessation of use. We consider harm reduction later in this Report.
54.Some submissions said that in comparison with high street retailers, the impact of the Bill on internet based retailers was less certain. The London Drug and Alcohol Policy Forum pointed out that it was not clear who would police internet sales, and there was an added difficulty in that online sellers might be based outside the UK jurisdiction. However, Police Scotland thought that whilst there was wide availability to obtain NPS online, for young people in particular purchasing on the internet would present additional challenges associated with parental scrutiny around providing bank account and delivery details.
55. The Minister told us that there did not seem to be a huge amount of evidence that sales were likely to go online when the ‘head shops’ vanish, and that this did not seem to have been the Irish experience; currently “only about 6% of these products are sold online” and websites are closed down on a regular basis.
56.However, the ACMD have suggested that the market in NPS might move to the internet. This was a view shared by Jeremy Sare of the Angelus Foundation, who explained the difficulty in relying on survey data about buying NPS online. He said that the substances being sold through small-scale dealers and friends could originally have been purchased online. Release and Transform expressed their concern that the removal of ‘head shops’ could increase the number of people buying NPS from the internet, forcing them to become their own and their friends’ dealers, and consequently committing more serious offences.
57.The Bill was amended in the House of Lords to provide powers to tackle the importation of psychoactive substances through the post. These powers should address the circumstances discovered by BBC Scotland, whereby chemical laboratories in China routinely send psychoactive substances to the UK using courier services. In addition, the Home Office has emphasised that the Government and law enforcement agencies are working with internet providers to stop the unlawful advertising and sales of drugs on the internet, including through the closure of UK-based websites.
58.The National Crime Agency (NCA) explained the challenge of identifying and removing websites selling or advertising NPS. Since the start of 2015, the NCA has identified over 80 websites of this kind based in the UK, whilst the EMCDDA identified 651 online suppliers operating within the EU in the previous year. Over the last five years, the NCA have removed over 100 websites. However, operators of such sites often control more than one domain, and may move from one to another in the event that one site is suspended. More problematically, operators on the Darknet (the encrypted part of the internet) do not own domains, but instead place adverts on marketplace platforms. A dip sample by the NCA shows that NPS are being advertised on all of the major Darknet marketplaces. The NCA assesses that the current small scale movement of sales to the Darknet reflects the activity by dealers who are trying to “claim a market share in the illicit marketplace […] in order to continue selling them in an ‘anonymous’ illegal manner”.
59.The NCA told us that without specific legislation in respect of NPS sales, it is difficult for law enforcement to close websites selling substances advertised for apparently legitimate purposes, such as those advertised as research chemicals. The internet can also offer suppliers a high degree of anonymity, and there are limits to what UK law enforcement can do to remove websites that are registered in overseas jurisdictions.
60.It is expected that the implementation of the Act will result in the closure of ‘head shops’, the main retail outlets for NPS. This should substantially reduce the ease of access to NPS. Furthermore, removing them from the high street should counter the perception that these are safe substances. We expect that this may result in potential users no longer choosing to experiment with these substances. However, established users are likely to seek to continue using NPS, either through choice or dependence. Therefore it is highly conceivable that the market will continue away from the high street.
61.There is substantial evidence that the market for NPS is already moving online, which, due to the anonymity that the internet can provide, is a challenge for prosecuting authorities to monitor and control. Enactment of this legislation will enable the closure of UK websites selling NPS, but it does not address those in overseas jurisdictions. We recommend that, within one month of Royal Assent of the legislation, the Government and the police publish an action plan setting out how they will tackle the challenges of displacement of sales to the internet, including by working with internet providers and overseas jurisdictions. We are particularly concerned about the importation of psychoactive substances via courier services. The Government must ensure that the amendments already made to the Bill will cover this supply route.
75 Dr Richard Stevenson ()
76 Home Office ()
77 Newcastle City Council ()
78 Mr Tim-Jake Gluckman ()
79 Portsmouth NPS Working Group (PAS034; Dr Richard Stevenson ()
80 Centrepoint ()
81 Edinburgh Division of Police Scotland ()
82 YMCA England ()
83 Newcastle City Council ()
86 London Drug and Alcohol Policy Forum (), The Scottish Government ()
87 Police Scotland ()
88 Qs 130 and 133-4
91 Release and Transform ()
92 “”, BBC News, 5 October 2015
94 National Crime Agency ()
Prepared 22 October 2015