Interview: Detective Chief Inspector Garry Mitchell

Last week, Edinburgh City Council seized over £50,000 worth of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) as part of a major crackdown on legal highs.  (Read our full coverage here).  The Student’s Rosie Barrett met with Detective Chief Inspector Garry Mitchell to discuss Operation Redwall and the dangers of NPS.

Interview conducted by Rosie Barrett on Monday, 2 November, 2015.  The following has been abridged for space and clarity.

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The Student: What is Operation Redwall, and what have you achieved so far?

DCI Garry Mitchell: Operation Redwall is Police Scotland’s national response to tackling issues associated with New Psychoactive Substances.

In August last year, we did the first national day of action at Police Scotland. We targeted 58 premises in one day that were selling NPS across the length and breadth of the country.  At that point in time, we recovered over 3,000 sachets of NPS.

Working with trading standards and a number of other organisations, we were able to get a snapshot of which shops were selling—which substances were there—and that was really beneficial.

Over the course of the work we’ve done, we have recovered over two metric tonnes of various different herbal materials that are used in the production of synthetic cannaboids.

We are closely working with Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. We are actually in some instances leaders in some of that work. So that work is continuing and we’re also in dialogue right now with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to support some of that work.

In August this year, Trading Standards applied to the court for NPS forfeiture orders.  They targeted 13 stores and I think it was eight [that] voluntarily handed them over.

What happened to the five head stores that didn’t comply?

That’s an issue for Trading Standards. But the fact that proprietors are actually handing over voluntarily some of these products, you have to ask yourself the question – do the proprietors know what they’re selling, why they’re selling it and the harm it potentially causes?

You’ve probably seen them—Google them, they’ll generally have on them “Not For Human Consumption”, “Not For Sale Under 18”. It’s plant food, it’s research chemicals, it’s this that and the other.

Everybody knows that people are actually consuming them to try and get an effect that loosely mimics control drugs because they’re deemed legal.

Legal does not necessarily mean safe. A lot of these products are actually extremely dangerous.

When you actually see the impact that taking these substances has, on families, communities, it’s horrendous.

We work with a young woman who has fought tooth or nail to save her family. Her son is addicted to NPS, and it has destroyed their family. This woman is slowly but surely trying to put her family back together again with support from Action for Children, Social Services and other partners to try and get her family, particularly her son, back in a place that is safe.

We’ve interviewed a range of students, and quite a prevalent problem is that students will say “oh it’s legal,  so it’s fine.”  How would you respond to that?

They are legal. But what you then need to consider is the health implications.

Now, the police aren’t all about taking legislation and ramming that legislation in people’s faces. Regardless of what I say to you about not taking NPS, students will take NPS.

If you take NPS, you’re endangering your life, you’re endangering your future. Some—albeit it is significantly decreased—do contain control drugs, so you end up maybe with a drugs possession charges.

So these are the things that in a bar on a Friday or a Saturday night you don’t neccesarily think about. So you get caught up in the moment, but that moment might significantly affect your future.

So, are some of these substances legal just now? They are. Absolutely, they’re legal. Ask yourself a question; why is that the case?

Some of these substances are derived from the chemical compound of methadrone. So what these people do is they change the molecule ever so slightly. That substance that’s just been produced, nobody knows how that’s going to react.

We can seize a particular product around the country, but it’s not always the same thing that’s in it.

With synthetic cannaboids in particular, the way that that gets produced is people will buy kilos upon kilos upon kilos upon kilos of herbal materials, throw it on the floor, then mix the synthetic materials with acetone. And then make it into a liquid. Then they’ll spray the material –so that’s not very good quality control. They’ll then turn it over with a shovel. Literally, turn it over with a shovel until it dries and then they’ll spray it again.

The toxicity that is in some of these substances is off the scale. So you could have a very strong percent of that toxicity in a small area where that material is and in another area of that material not much going on. There’s no control mechanism. There’s no pharmaceutical company saying this has been done under controlled circumstances.

So you, as a poor student, go to a party on a Saturday night and you end up with a packet that’s got a toxicity that’s off the scale. And you consume that, chances are you’re going to A&E. Whereas someone who has done the exact same thing as you, with a different packet says “that didn’t affect me at all.”

Could you talk about the involvement of organised crime gangs in the production of NPS?

That is ever becoming an increasing issue, because organised criminals will invariably get involved in any commodity that is going to make them money. 66 per cent of organised crime gangs in Scotland deal with control drugs.

So can you make as much or a similar amount of money selling in a legal world as you can in an illegal world? The answer to that is yes. So they will absolutely look to that world to increase their profits, and again to reduce their risk of getting caught.

Edinburgh  is the first city council to get seizure orders. Will we see that spread across the country?

Hopefully. We’ve already had some conversations with our trading standards colleagues, and that would be the aspirational thing.  That would be brilliant.

Will we see new legislation brought forward to create a Blanket ban across all NPS?

For the legislation that’s in right now, and we have supported this fully, there would be no possession offence. However, if you’re found with it, we’ll take it off you.

So that legislation is being written predominantly for those that would get involved with the sale and supply of NPS. Not for individuals. The legislation does say if you try and import it you will be charged with that.

But the  bottom line is, there’s legislation there, it’s drafted.

You’re doing a lot to target head stores, but what about sales of NPS on the internet?

We’d like to do more. The European Monitoring Centre For Drugs and Drug Addiction Report 2014 [found] that at that point in time there were 651 internet shops in Europe. The actual figure is likely to be much higher than that.

So there’s a whole host of things that the internet is facilitating, and it’s a very challenging area for the law enforcement to get into. And that’s not to say we’re not going to deal with it, we’ll absolutely try to deal with it, but the issue’s there and that’s not going to go away.

How   are legal highs imported to Scotland from countries such as China?

Let’s just say a package gets sent [from] China to potentially Eastern Europe. Some of those packages were then being redirected by the mail to the UK, because packages into Eastern Europe weren’t being checked.

So, what they’ve done is circumvent that. [NPS] would be described as “car wash”, so it’s getting mailed around the globe packaged up as a completely different substances. Inside, it’s potentially nice wee shiny packages of dangerous substances.

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