The illegal synthetic cannabinoid trade is so commonplace it only takes five minutes to buy Spice in central Manchester, and with brazen street deals hard to avoid, the problem is becoming even harder to ignore.
If you were to stand in Piccadilly Gardens, loitering and looking around as the city bustles past, you’d probably be offered the opportunity to buy Spice. It’s a proposition few would ask for and a deal no one would accept if they knew the consequences.
UNILAD took to the streets of central Manchester to see how Spice has spread:
Intelligence from Greater Manchester Police indicates nearly 9 in 10 organised crime groups in Greater Manchester are involved in drug-related activity, as reported in the Greater Manchester Drug and Alcohol Strategy 2018 – 2021 draft document.
Spice is an incredibly lucrative (and life-ruining) illegal product harnessed by these gangs.
Julie Boyle, Criminal Justice Lead at the crisis organisation Lifeshare, told UNILAD:
It’s easy to get it. Ten minutes. And seven of those is the walk to Piccadilly [from Lifeshare’s premises in the Northern Quarter]. If you hang around the city centre long enough somebody will ask you if you want to buy Spice.
In May 2016, the government introduced a blanket ban on so-called legal highs – with the exception of substances like alcohol, tobacco and poppers – and opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box of so-called legal highs to a collective criminal underbelly without a conscious which had previously dealt in heroin and crack cocaine.
So begins the heart-breaking but complex story of an incredibly misunderstood substance on which many users were hooked long before it was criminalised under the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA).
Then Home Secretary, Theresa May, was warned about her misguided bill by numerous independent experts, many of whom dubbed it ‘unenforceable’.
Her own advisory council on the misuse of drugs (ACMD) wrote her an open letter saying her proposals would have ‘serious unintended consequences’ including the trade being ‘displaced to illegal dealing networks and internet sales, with some users switching to more harmful substances’.
Now, as predicted, we face a situation in which dealers continue to take advantage of homeless addicts and the prison population, in order to make thousands of pounds every week.
The act did what it set out to do ‘on the most basic level’, said Rob Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, but it failed to understand the power of addiction and the relentlessness of the black market.
The market was there for so-called legal cannabis more so than any other legal high inspired by, for instance, ecstasy or methamphetamine, said Ralphs, and ‘once it goes onto the illegal street market there’s a much higher chance it’ll be mixed with adulterated substances’.
While criminalisation, he says, hasn’t necessarily forced a rise in the number of Spice addicts, it has certainly pushed the market onto the streets.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, street dealers are now targeting the homeless and thus, legalisation has resulted in a geographically tiny arena where it’s all too easy to get Spice.
Now the market is much more visible – in central areas of major footfall like Market Street and Piccadilly Gardens – because the dealers are targeting the homeless.
Pointing to the successful Amsterdam model, where dealing of legal highs is separate from other drugs, Ralphs said the government’s policy has provoked the same people who are dealing crack cocaine and heroin to produce and supply much more dangerous Spice.
But while the PSA might have worked on weekend revellers, no amount of criminalisation of classification is going to deter vulnerable addicts.
Tommy, a 22-year-old former addict from Oldham, first smoked Spice when it was legal.
Here’s some advice from the NHS about dealing with addiction:
A friend offered Tommy the synthetic cannabinoid as a then-legal alternative to smoking weed, hoping it would help him relax after the death of his mother and his daughter being taken into care.
Tommy, who lived on the streets for eight years, said:
It was cheaper than cannabis. I could buy it from the corner shop for a fiver and no police could say anything about it. But it’s a drug that catches you and doesn’t let go.
As soon as it was made illegal, the potency shot up as backyard dealers started producing kilos and kilos of unregulated versions of the drug in a ‘simple process’ of manufacturing malevolence.
Psychopharmaceutical Chemist at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, told UNILAD:
These are not natural substrates. They’ve been manufactured in a laboratory and are significantly more potent.
Production has always been underground but by driving the manufacture into the arms of criminal gangs, there’s potential for greater danger.
It also increases risk of violence and criminal exploitation of addiction and subsequent debt, within the organised crime arena.
Dealers are looking at a ‘significant mark up’ of a couple of hundred per cent, Dr Sutcliffe adds, saying seizures have been made from large-scale manufacturing outfits of ‘up to a couple of kilos’.
The chemical is usually purchased through the dark web and imported illegally, he says.
The powder will be dissolved in a solvent – something like nail varnish remover – and mixed with a nondescript inert plant material, dried and then separated into the snap bags we see littering the streets.
While his data can attest to the purity of Spice rising from a pre-ban 2 per cent to a post-ban 20 per cent – so strong it can prove lethal – Dr Sutcliffe adds making Spice illegal also makes it much harder to track and regulate.
After the PSA came into law, the head shops, where Spice was sold in clearly marked packets emblazoned with a list of active ingredients, were closed and forced to turn away the ‘Northern Quarter hipsters and hen parties’ who frequented the shelves.
Thus, the government was able to release figures saying the use of New Psychoactive Substance was ‘significantly‘ reduced. But they didn’t account for the black market.
Immediately, Spice was taken elsewhere and ‘since the ban, the variation and the uncertainty has increased significantly’ and ‘doesn’t seem to show any pattern’, except an increasing potency.
Despite Manchester’s ‘game-changing’ research infrastructure, Dr Sutcliffe explained:
Historically we were able to garner information and intelligence as to what was circulating, by testing product in head shops.
The ban made this impossible. We are now a little out of step in terms of what’s circulating. We’re well advanced but it’s not perfect.
For example, any Annihilation – a street name for a certain type of Spice – circulating now will definitely not be anything like what it was prior to the ban.
Dr Sutcliffe compared it to a game of Russian Roulette:
A user could go to a dealer today and pick up one batch but go back tomorrow and collect a complete red herring which might put them in significant danger.
Tommy said it’s getting worse and what’s being sold as Spice – an umbrella term for synthetic cannabinoids – on the streets now bears little resemblance to what he first encountered years ago.
It’s not Spice, it’s just chemicals… They’re just calling it a new form of Spice. Kids nowadays are getting chopped up oregano and soaking it in acetone from nail varnish remover or liquid cleaner for your alloys.
Shaun, a 20-something homeless man living just off Deansgate who is still in the throes of Spice addiction, echoes Tommy’ worries. Shaun had his first hit of Spice in HM Prison Manchester thinking it was cannabis.
When he was released in early 2016, hooked on the substance, he went straight to the head shops where he bought a whole packet of Black Kronic Spice, legally, for a fiver and a half ounce for £15.
The packets, advertising the ingredients, bought over the counter gave Spice an air of legitimacy in Shaun’s mind, as his addiction deepened.
He was already addicted to Spice, as well as heroin and crack cocaine, when synthetic cannabinoids were criminalised a few months later.
After the ban, he started to experience stomach pains and crushing side effects which he puts down to a higher potency associated with the criminal drug gangs who have a monopoly on the substance.
Shaun told UNILAD:
Spice now, it doesn’t taste like it did in the shops or smell like it did in the shops. It’s different. Smells of ammonia and nail varnish remover when you light it.
You only need one pull and you’re out. It’s putting everyone who smokes it now in hospital.
In Tommy’s hometown of Oldham, he claims some dealers are concocting crystallised Spice designed to look like MDMA and a cannabis-like Spice substance called Stardog, in the hopes they can trick more young people into addiction.
In Manchester, Boyle cites an ‘every man for himself attitude’ whereby the bags of Spice ‘can be tampered with’ by dealers.
She adds dealers are coming up with more inventive ways to dodge the law, dipping tobacco cigarettes into liquid Spice and selling one for £10.
‘The time it takes to analyse something and find out if it’s psychoactive they’re onto the next batch,’ Boyle said, continuing her outspoken stance against Spice, even though her life has been threatened countless times by underground manufacturers looking to preserve their illicit but lucrative lifestyles.
Without regulation, lots of people are making their own synthetic cannabinoid in bathtubs and sinks at home, with huge risks of even bigger variations in potency – and no way to tell to the human eye.
It’s a snapshot of what’s being seen across the UK, in Doncaster, Nottingham, Newcastle, Swansea, Wrexham, and Merseyside, Dr Sutcliffe says, adding, ‘There are spice users in every city around the country’.
But 74 per cent of frontline practitioners in Greater Manchester feel the public is more concerned now with people using or dealing drugs openly in their areas than three years ago, according to a published draft of the Greater Manchester Drug and Alcohol Strategy 2018- 2021.
Over 1 in 4 Greater Manchester residents (27 per cent) think there is a ‘very/fairly big problem’ with ‘people using or dealing drugs’. This is higher than the average in England and Wales, which sits at 23 per cent.
Moreover, it’s increasing wrong-doing among addicts in the homeless community, some of whom Tommy has seen descend into further criminality to feed their habit out of utter desperation.
Aside from the heartbreak of seeing vulnerable addicts whose lives have been torn apart by Spice, the public has justifiable concern.
National evidence suggests individuals dependent on opioids and/or crack cocaine (OCUs) are responsible for an estimated 45 per cent of acquisitive crime – including shoplifting, burglary, vehicle crime and robbery.
This equates to more than 2,000,000 offences.
So, why not just carry on down this path of harsher punishment for psychoactive substances offences?
The original strain of Spice, which was ten times more potent than cannabis according to Ralphs, was made a Class B drug in 2009. The second generation, at 100 to 200 times more potent, was made Class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2012.
He concluded the scary narrative, saying:
Now we’re third generation and between 700 to 800 times more potent after eight years of the misuse of drugs act and it’s just led to more potent strains being developed.
Making it a Class A is not really going to have any impact on people’s decision making whether to use it or not, particularly among the vulnerable communities in which Spice is popular now.
But Boyle believes if it hadn’t have been criminalised ‘the novelty may have worn off’ and Spice wouldn’t have impacted our city and its vulnerable residents quite so severely.
Tommy chimes in to say he firmly believes:
If the government had kept it legal and in the shops Spice wouldn’t be the problem it is now in Manchester town. There’d be fewer incidents and fewer deaths.
Ralphs believes the only way to reverse the damage done is to target dealers.
Greater Manchester Police released enforcement action figures to UNILAD which show 55 people have been arrested for possession with intent to supply Spice since January 2017 in the city centre alone.
Additionally, there have been 90 arrests for possession of the drug, with ‘many of these people directed to support services’.
On this matter, Superintendent Chris Hill, GMP’s commander for the city centre, said:
Tackling Spice use and dealing in the city centre is still a high priority for us and we continue to work with our partners to help people get the support that they need and ultimately get this harmful drug off our streets.
It’s crucial that we continue to work with partners, including Manchester City Council’s Antisocial Behaviour Action Team, the CPS and the courts to take dealers off the streets but also with health and support services to refer users so that they can get the help that they need and ultimately help us tackle the issue.
We remain committed to working together to keep Manchester safe for everyone, but we do need the continued support of the community in reporting suspicious incidents through 101, or 999 in an emergency.
Looking further afield to London, Ralphs doubts the government’s policies around prohibition, which ‘make it illegal to drink in public places so homeless people can no longer self-medicate with regulated substances like alcohol’.
Meanwhile, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is currently being reviewed by The Home Office, who are investigating what they call ‘unavoidable limitations’ in approach.
They are evaluating the potential ‘leakage‘ – or in other words ‘where the legislation benefits others outside the target group, for example, less visible retailers’ like drug dealers – caused by the PSA.
It will also examine the impact of ‘displacement’ – which they muse ‘may occur both at the point of supply (with the development of an illicit market) and the point of demand (with users displacing to other substances, which may be more or less harmful)’, all with no new data compiled for the purposes of the review.
The report will be made public in late 2018.
From his office in Manchester, Ralphs says we must engage the community in better pre-emptive prevention, cutting off the need for Spice before someone resorts to taking that potentially fatal first hit.
In conclusion, Ralphs cites the past twenty years in which the UK has ‘diverted attention from a health-based approach with harm reduction to drug use to a criminalisation of so-called problematic users under New Labour’ as a failing solution.
The war on drugs – and vulnerable users – isn’t working.
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