- 11 Dec 08
The authorities seem to be going way beyond the law in their campaign against head shops and sex shops. But because a pleasure-focussed sub-culture is involved, no one gives a damn that the rights of the owners of the shops are being trampled on.
Sex used to be the last great taboo. Nowadays, it’s not the only one. Some would argue that sex is no longer taboo, but try opening a sex shop in Cavan and you’ll discover what the reality is! Not to put too fine a point on it, roughly half of the country lives in the 21st century while the others live in some sort of fantasy GAAland where it’s always 1916 and sex is something to be drunkenly fumbled through and never mentioned again.
The good news is that civil war Ireland has one foot in the grave; the bad news is that the other foot is in government buildings. If there’s one expression of bodily sovereignty the oldies hate more than liberated sexuality, it’s getting high.
We can legally change gender, bra size, waist measurement; we can even mutilate our genitalia if our religion or culture reckons that’s a good idea. When it comes to our minds, however, we aren’t afforded such exotic options. We can choose between the world’s most dangerous drug and the world’s second most dangerous drug. If we want to find an alternative though, every imaginable obstacle is put in the way.
Like the State-sponsored frigidity of the 1970s, an equally irrational holier-than-thou culture has insinuated itself again into the sinews of society, with an all-new Moral Police force vehemently crusading against the perceived vices of others. Just what we need on the run-in to Christmas...
So where does all of this leave us? In a very strange situation indeed.
Take one: the Gardai recently raided Dublin’s sex shops and confiscated DVDs on the basis that the Irish film censor hadn’t cleared them for release. But this is absurd: are we saying that every single movie of every kind has to be viewed by the censor’s office before it can change hands? And that the onus is on every individual shop to ensure that this is the case in relation to the DVDs they sell? Does the same regime apply to books? And where does that leave us in relation to the internet, where the dissemination of porn of every shade and variety is facilitated by service providers at every hour of the day and night?
Take two: Detective Chief Superintendent Cormac Gordon told Hot Press earlier this year that “the Gardai Siochana don’t differentiate between hard and soft drugs”. Alarmingly, given his position as the head of the drug squad, Gordon’s position was directly inconsistent with the law of the land, which actually does make a clear distinction between cannabis and all other illicit drugs.
Nevertheless, in the minds of an increasingly virulent group of retro-warriors in positions of influence, drugs are drugs – and all drugs are equally bad. Can there be any other explanation for the fact that the DPP was prepared to prosecute – and a provincial Cork judge prepared to convict – Helen Stone, the owner of Funky Skunk in Cork, for selling an obscure herb which is not illegal, in a contentious case already reported on in Hot Press, and now bound for the High Court? Similarly, two weeks ago, the Gardai carried out raids on 22 head shops in search of drugs which aren’t illegal. Last week, they took that number to 23 when they raided The Legal in Carlow.
If reports from head shops are accurate, confiscating things which aren’t listed on the warrant seems to be becoming something of a habit for members of the Gardai. Several head shop owners have confirmed to Hot Press that officers seized items which were not listed on the warrants shown to them, including thousands of euros worth of cannabis seeds (as well as, on one recent raid, a shop's entire stock of ZoHai – a legal incense blend). The Department of Health has repeatedly confirmed to Hot Press that cannabis seeds are perfectly legal to possess and sell.
What on the face of it are entirely illegitimate seizures of the property of individuals and companies don’t end there, though. Hot Press has also learned that customs officials have been systematically opening, and periodically confiscating, stock bound for Irish head shops. When staff enquire after confiscated stock, they are simply told to “forget it”, accept that it’s gone, and move on. The stock is never returned and no one is ever held accountable.
What the authorities are doing may well be illegal in itself, but no one seems to give a damn – and, as a result, the Gardai and Customs officials get progressively bolder in their efforts. What amounts to an under-the-table war with the head shops has been dramatically intensified in recent weeks.
At the moment, the authorities are holding €4 million worth of BZP pills, which are entirely legal, but which they refuse to allow passage to their destination. Hot Press has seen correspondence which confirms that their intended recipient, Paddy Grant, the co-owner of the Nirvana chain of head shops, has been chasing the four pallets of pills since August.
“A lot of people are afraid to speak out about their treatment by Customs, due to the strength of their powers and their willingness to abuse them,” Grant says, pointing to the experience of his business partner, who won a Supreme Court case regarding sex shops, but whose stock, Grant claims, was deliberately damaged beyond use before being returned.
It’s hard to believe that Ireland’s Customs service currently operates with such impunity; but head shop operators insist that, in what has all the hallmarks of the operations of a banana republic, individuals within the service are showing scant regard for either the law of the land, or the rights of particular citizens. Unfortunately, the only way to hold them accountable is to take legal proceedings. This is a tough road: the state can deploy, and risk, the sort of resources which are way beyond those of even moderately wealthy citizens.
Paddy Grant refuses to rule out legal action, saying that “all potential avenues are being explored at present” – but he’s still attempting to negotiate an agreement with the authorities. Hot Press understands that BZPs are scheduled to be banned by next May, but in the meantime there’s no valid reason why anyone should be hampered in their efforts to import and sell them. It seems, however, that Customs have taken a different view and are attempting to pre-empt the BZP ban in the same way they established a de facto mushroom prohibition in late 2005, months before Mary Harney changed the law.
Which hardly points to a happy Christmas for the head shop owners – or their customers.