The ban on drugs formerly known as “legal highs” may have put off casual users but has driven those with serious addiction problems underground, a charity has claimed.
Responding to news nearly 200 people have been arrested in the first three months since the crackdown on “psychoactive” substances came into force, DrugWise said the market had simply been driven underground.
The first national figures since a change in the law took effect showed that police have so far arrested 186 people, while 24 head shops have closed.
But DrugWise director Harry Sharpio told the BBC that those with a serious drug problem would remain undeterred from buying the highs.
“It’s moved from the shops to the street,” he said.
Drugs policy campaign Transform added that the ban was only introduced to tackle “visible sales” to give politicians a “visible PR success”.
“The market will simply shift to unregulated street and online sales. It has, in the main, done just that,” the group’s founder, Danny Kushlick, told the Guardian.
“The ban has only served to drive the trade underground, increasing health harms and criminality.”
Kushlick later said on the BBC: “It doesn’t actually deal with the problem of health - what it does is get rid of a visible PR problem.
“This is effectively a PR stunt because it doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem of protecting people’s health.”
Transform’s head of operations Jane Slater also said the ‘legal highs’ drugs market had now been “gifted” to illegal and unregulated dealers.
“Far from making our communities safer, the NPS ban has resulted in increased health harms and criminality,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
Under the previous regime, authorities were locked in a game of cat and mouse in which manufacturers produced substances with a slightly altered chemical make-up almost immediately after the previous version was banned.
Commander Simon Bray, who heads the National Police Chiefs Council’s approach to New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), had said the ban was slowing the drugs “arms race”.
“Therefore there is less incentive to have this sort of arms race-type approach whereby people are inventing new substances all the time simply to outwit what we do,” the Press Association reported him saying.
Bray also revealed police in London had seized nearly 14,000 canisters of nitrous oxide - known as laughing gas.
One of the key issues previously was the availability for people who would be “lulled into buying these things” thinking they were legal and therefore safe, and also accessible, Mr Bray added.
“That aspect is now made much more difficult. Therefore there’s a whole range of people who will not be persuaded to take these things anymore who previously would - so it’s reducing danger for some.”
Under the Psychoactive Substances Act, offenders can face up to seven years in prison, while orders can be issued to shut down head shops and online dealers.
Safeguarding minister Sarah Newton said: “These dangerous drugs have already cost far too many lives.
“I’m encouraged to see that – three months in – police are using their new powers to take dealers off our streets and that so many retailers have been denied the chance to profit from this reckless trade.
“These drugs are not legal, they are not safe and we will not allow them to be sold in this country.”
NPS saw an explosion in the popularity of “legal highs” on the drug scene from 2008. The substances mimic the effects of “traditional” illegal drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy.
A number of legitimate substances, such as food, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are excluded from the legislation.