Two men and a woman were given community service orders on Tuesday in a groundbreaking case over the sale of £400,000 worth of so-called legal highs in Belfast.
Ian Brown, Ashley Campbell and Susan Bradshaw all admitted failing to comply with safety regulations by distributing a dangerous product, namely novel psychoactive substances (NPS), at a city centre shop.
Charges were brought against them for supply over an eight-month period at the Soho Bookshop premises.
The convictions, in a case brought by Belfast City Council, represent the first successful prosecution for sale of the substances in the United Kingdom.
In court on Tuesday, a barrister for the local authority 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 were distributed at the shop on Gresham Street between October 2013 and July 2014 in a substantial commercial operation taking 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), whose address was given as the Soho Bookshop, 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), with the same Gresham Street address, allowed his name to feature on the company details.
However, 46-year-old Bradshaw, of Broom Street in 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 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.
Passing sentence, Judge Nixon ordered Bradshaw to complete 100 hours of 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.