Increase in youngsters taking ‘legal’ drugs

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A GROWING number of Wigan youngsters are using controversial legal highs, latest figures reveal.

Over the last 18 months the council’s drugs and alcohol services have seen an increase in the number of young people and adults using New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). They are said to be available at four shops within the borough.

Latest figures show they are supporting 21 youngsters - 17 of whom are male - who are using the legal drugs and that for young people who were referred for cannabis use, almost half stated that NPS were their secondary drug.

Using such substances can have devastating effects, including death. In 2010 Leigh 20-year-old Stephanie Howard died after taking the then legal high mephedrone, also known as “meow meow”.

Nationally, such substances have been linked to 60 deaths in 2013, up from 52 the previous year and double the number in 2011. Over the last year, the authority has been working to tackle the growing problem and has been monitoring the four local “head shops” - retail units that are licenced to sell tobacco paraphernalia, legal highs, legal party powders and New Age herbs.

The council’s Legal High Partnership, consisting of Trading Standards, the police and young person’s drug and alcohol teams, visited the shops, providing full underage sales advice and a letter to suppliers, advising they are committing an offence if they supply such products to under 18s and how to prevent this.

All sites stated they did not sell to under-18s and teams will carry out test purchases throughout the year to assess if they are complying with the legislation.

The Evening Post was unable to identify all the shops, but last year. Leigh mum Karen Dickinson set up a petition to stop head shops from selling legal highs, after son, 20-year-old Thomas Shaw, started smoking herbal incense he bought from Mega Bargains, in Bradshawgate, Leigh.

She said as a result he had been hospitalised several times and is now taking anti-psychosis drugs after suffering a psychiatric breakdown.

She said: “I want the shop to stop selling the drugs, but failing that, just for people to know how dangerous these things are.

“They have chemically damaged his brain cells and it could take up to 18 months to rejuvenate.”

Sanjay Makwana, owner of Mega Bargains, said: “I get regular visits from Trading Standards. I don’t let under-18s in my shop and I have an under-25s check policy.”

“I believe these substances are popular to smoke as it gives people a high for 15 to 20 minutes. Most of my customers have been smoking it for years and as they are older they are more sensible. The problem is if younger people get hold if it.

“If I see any new faces come in, who are not regulars, I advise people not to smoke such items, but once they are out of my door, I cannot do anything.”

Prof Kate Ardern, director of public health for Wigan Council, said: “Over the past 18 months services in Wigan borough have seen an increase in the number of young people and adults reporting the use of so-called legal highs. Our services also report that there is increased use of these substances, especially among young people, following the consumption of alcohol.

“Many young people are unaware of the potential serious harm these substances can cause. These substances are not tested or regulated and have been linked to cases nationally of poisoning, admission to hospital, admission to mental health services and in some cases even death.

“I would advise all parents of children who may come into contact with legal highs to make clear to them the dangers of these substances and to urge them to completely avoid taking them. We support any action which is taken to ban these substances as they pose a significant risk to health, particularly the health of young people.”

Moves are now being made to ban legal highs as Home Secretary Theresa May wants to bring forward new laws.

Ministers have previously struggled to outlaw the chemicals and the government has banned 350 legal highs since 2010 but manufacturers in China and India tweak the ingredients to create new versions that have the same effects but are not technically illegal.

But now the Home Office plans to ban any attempt to advertise, sell or import a substance that has the capacity to stimulate or depress the central nervous system.