'Legal highs': Belfast sellers first to be convicted in the UK, as landmark city council prosecution succeeds
Two men and a woman from Belfast have been convicted in a landmark legal case over the sale of so-called legal highs in Northern Ireland.
Ian Brown, Ashley Campbell and Susan Bradshaw all admitted failing to comply with safety regulations by distributing a dangerous product at a city centre shop.
Their convictions, in a case brought by Belfast City Council, represent the first successful prosecution for sale of "legal highs" in the UK.
Legal highs - or their more appropriate name, Novel or New Psychoactive Substances - are drugs that stimulate or depress the central nervous system in a way that mimics banned substances such as cannabis or cocaine.
Chemical compounds are synthesised in labs so that they fall outside international drug controls – at least when they first emerge.
Newtownards teenager Adam Owens (17) died hours after taking legal highs in April.
There have been calls from the DUP and from within Westminster for new laws to ban the substances, but a "delighted" spokesperson said the council had demonstrated that existing legislation - the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 - can be used to prosecute sellers.
Charges were brought against the trio for supply of £400,000 worth of NPS over an eight-month period at the Soho Bookshop premises in Belfast.
They have all been given community service orders.
In court on Tuesday, Belfast City Council's barrister described the term "legal high" as a misnomer, used as a marketing tactic to distract customers.
Charles McCreanor QC said: "This has become a serious problem throughout the UK because of the lack of knowledge of the dangerousness (of these products).
"The focus of this supply seems to be young people who are particularly vulnerable."
Belfast Magistrates' Court heard NPS was distributed at the shop on Gresham Street between October 2013 and July 2014 in a substantial commercial operation raking in £50,000 a month.
Mr McCreanor insisted all attempts were made to avoid detection, with the covert trade continuing after warnings to stop.
"Despite assurances to council staff, there was a different procedure method by which this sale of dangerous products could take place," he said.
"As the council tried to stem the flow of this matter, computers were removed, records were removed so they could not be traced."
Emphasising the potential dangers, the lawyer said no material was available to show where the products came from, with labelling carried out "randomly".
District Judge Ken Nixon was told of a "hierarchy of culpability" among the three defendants.
Brown, 53, of Carniny Road, Ballymena, Co Antrim, was said to be in charge of running the store.
"He has made perhaps every attempt possible to avoid liability and continue this unlawful trade," Mr McCreanor claimed.
Campbell, 23, also of Carniny Road, Ballymena, allowed his name to feature on the company details.
However, 46-year-old Bradshaw, of Bray Street in west Belfast, just worked in the shop without any influence or control, the court heard.
She received no profit from the sale of the products.
Her lawyer stressed how she had been employed on minimum wage and played only a minor role in the operation.
Counsel for Campbell argued that he had allowed his name to be used by an older relative.
"There's no evidence he benefited financially from the sale of these substances," barrister Luke Curran said.
Mr Curran also claimed Brown now acknowledges the dangerousness of the products.
"He accepts fully there will be no return to this type of conduct."
Brown, who was declared bankrupt back in 2010, is still in the process of paying back his debts, the court was told.
Passsing sentence, Judge Nixon ordered Bradshaw to complete 100 community service, Campbell 190 hours and Brown the maximum 240 hours.
He warned the defendants: "If you fail to meet any aspect of the order you will serve a term of imprisonment."
Criminal action was taken in tandem with civil litigation to secure a ban on the trader selling any NPS from Soho Bookshop.
An interim order, imposed by Mr Justice Deeny at the High Court last November, was granted under the General Product Safety Regulations.
Attorney General John Larkin QC and the City Council jointly sought the prohibition against Brown, Campbell, Bradshaw and a fourth defendant named Aiden Kerr - now believed to be fictitious.
Under its terms the defendants are prohibited from selling NPS anywhere in Northern Ireland.
A Belfast City Council spokesperson said: “These substances don’t meet the necessary safety requirements; just because they are not banned under drugs laws does not mean that these substances are safe.
"They are a risk to a user’s health because their production is not regulated and the consumer simply can’t be certain as to what is in them and their potential harmful effects.
“As a result of Belfast City Council’s work there are no longer any shops in the Belfast City Council area selling Novel Psychoactive Substances.
"They can however be bought from other sources and Belfast City Council is continuing to work in partnership with the PSNI, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and others to do everything possible to tackle this ongoing scourge.”