Over the last few years, the rise of synthetic cannabinoid use has destroyed many lives across the UK. Powerful, cheap and up to 100 times more potent than cannabis, spice appeals to many of the more marginalised members of society, such as people experiencing homelessness. Many users are introduced to it in prison, with the drug now endemically entrenched in the UK’s criminal justice system. Acting PPO Elizabeth Moody reported spice is “completely out of control now in prisons.”
The popularity of spice is unstoppable, even after The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into place banning ‘legal highs.’ In the documentary ‘The Darkside of Britain: Spice,’ Julie Boyle, Criminal Justice Lead at Lifeshare in Manchester, argues that the spice crisis has “got a lot worse” since its criminalisation. Boyle continues “you’re not getting sealed packets, so you don’t know what’s in them”. This makes the formula easier to tamper with meaning regulation over the drug has been lost. Many of the drug users featured in the documentary agreed that the drug was now less safe.
Despite spice increasing in danger since criminalisation, there are calls to change the legislation further and increase its classification to Class A from Class B. This was discussed in parliament last November. Ben Bradley MP argues “Changing the classification would mean tougher penalties for manufacturers and dealers.” With both the physical and mental potency at the level of heroin and crack cocaine, even users of these Class A drugs can very quickly become addicted. Visual effects of spice are shockingly visible as users fall into comatose states, or become dehumanised ‘spice zombies’. Bradley justifiably argues that comparing synthetic cannabinoids to cannabis is obsolete. As the drugs are already criminalised, perhaps increasing the classification is the next logical step if the seriousness of the spice epidemic is to be addressed.
People who use spice often have slipped through the net of other services, for mental health or housing provision, due to the continued impact of austerity measures. While the spice crisis needs to be urgently tackled, it is feared that stricter legislation will ignore the root cause of spice addiction, which is first and foremost a public health crisis. Reclassification might enable more action against dealers, but the appeal, and thus prevalence, of spice will remain. Ronnie Cowan MP suggests that criminals “will protect themselves and the people around them by increasing the levels of violence that they use on their people in their marketplace. That would mean that, yet again, it is the vulnerable people who would be the most punished by such a move.”
On the streets and in prisons, possession of spice is treated as a criminal offence, rather than a health issue. There is no national data on spice usage, as local authorities are responsible for assessing local need for drug and alcohol treatment. However action in Sheffield shows us what can be possible with this approach. Since July 2018, a weekly drop-in clinic managed by trained recovery staff promote individual centred treatment including therapy which has meant that people laid out unconscious in the city centre is now a rare sight. With training for business owners and homelessness workers on how to deal with people under the influence of spice, police have reported a 35% decrease in crime rate.
If the classification increases, sentence penalties will increase, trapping addicts into a cycle of continued imprisonment. This is an expense the UK cannot afford in an increasingly stretched prison system. Increased classification may imprison more dealers, but with the rife availability of spice in prisons it will not decrease usage. History tells us that a policy of prohibition is always a failure and doesn’t try to understand the reasons behind a drug’s prevalence. The government should instead be focusing attention on investing in services for synthetic cannabinoid addiction recovery and those with complex social needs, to truly begin to alleviate the problem.