Padraig O'Morain: Parents are right to be afraid of headshops - is anyone listening to them?
The evidence is everywhere. Parents all over our cities and towns are alarmed at the proliferation of headshops.
And they're right to be.
The idea that any business be allowed to sell psychoactive products to anyone who walks through the door is just frightening.
It is especially frightening for parents that the people who walk through the door could include their own teenage children.
It is clear from the comments of doctors and parents that the legal highs being sold by the nation's 100 or so headshops are very strong indeed. For some people, the 'trip' ends in a hospital bed.
If you wanted to buy a fairly benign herbal product like melatonin (to prevent jet lag) or St John's Wort (for depression) in the pharmacy, you would need a doctor's prescription.
In light of that degree of regulation in the medical area, it is astonishing that the Government and Minister for Health have allowed shops to spread to such an extent that even the Los Angeles Times recently carried a feature on "The Blarney Stoned".
Arson and pipebomb attacks on headshops underline the seriousness of the situation.
These attacks are thought to be carried out by drug gangs which see the headshops as a threat to their business.
That in itself is a measure of the extent to which the Government took its eye off the ball on this issue.
Even people who favour the decriminalisation of drugs in the belief that it would put drug dealers out of business would find the unregulated aspect of the headshop phenomenon hard to take.
Many, perhaps most, parents would like to see headshops banned altogether and that's understandable.
This immediately creates the problem, though, that the gangs would move in on the territory vacated by the headshops. If there is one thing we don't need it's an increase in the range of drugs that gangsters can sell to enrich themselves.
Politicians who call for planning restrictions on headshops may have got it about right.
If planning permission was required before anyone could open a headshop anywhere, then the whole situation would be transformed.
Local communities would have a say as to whether a headshop should open in their midst -- and I think we can all guess just what local communities would be saying: No.
The pro and anti-arguments could be made to planning officials. If headshops were allowed to open at the end of the process they could be placed under severe restrictions.
Planning restrictions could call an immediate halt to the proliferation of headshops and reduce the number that now exist.
The Government is to ban the sale of certain substances from June but there is no end to the variety of new substances that can and will be created to meet demand.
Something more than a ban on substances is needed and that something may be a planning law which prevents headshops from opening anywhere near schools or near centres where young people gather.
I have no doubt that young people who are wandering into headshops today are buying substances that land some of them in hospital.
And that's one of the big dangers of headshops: they make it too easy for young people to experiment with totally unregulated substances.
We need to make it harder and we need tough planning laws to help us to do that.
But first we need the Government to ratchet up its response to a problem which it has allowed to get alarmingly out of hand.