For 95 per cent of Mancunian homeless people Spice has commandeered their lives with devastating consequences, and as the potency and proliferation of synthetic cannabinoids worsens, the future of our streets looks bleak.
This is the warning presented by voluntary crisis organisation, Lifeshare, which offers vital services to rough sleepers in Manchester and Salford.
Despite being the most vulnerable to Spice addiction, the homeless community was largely overlooked when the government – against the better judgement of experts – decided to criminalise the production and sale of synthetic cannabinoids for human consumption.
The knock-on effects have hurt them the hardest, rough sleepers told UNILAD:
Since the turn of the decade the number of homeless people in Manchester has increased by 554 per cent, according to a Greater Manchester Homeless Action Network reduction strategy report to end rough sleeping by 2020.
Hidden within these shocking statistics is the ‘changing profile of the rough sleeper population’.
Increasing numbers of women now make up this still overwhelmingly male group, but the age profile shows a disturbing growth in the number of younger people who now sleep on the streets.
The complexity of reasons rough sleepers are resorting to nights on the streets have multiplied, with mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and extreme social exclusion consistently affecting the core population of entrenched rough sleepers.
Considering cuts to services for the vulnerable, it’s no surprise so many self-medicate with Spice – despite the dangers – to escape the harsh realities of life on the streets.
While everyone has their own reason for resorting to Spice, there’s one common denominator among the homeless community, Tommy, 22, from Oldham tells UNILAD.
‘Spice passes the time on the streets’, the former addict recalls, and gives someone ‘without purpose something to chase all day’. But it’s a constant and vicious cycle.
Rob Ralphs, a criminologist from Manchester Metropolitan University explained suicidal thoughts are a common side effect of smoking Spice.
Brandon, who drifted across Europe – Italy, France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland – encountering Spice and feeding his addiction along the way, was smoking upwards of 58g a day ‘to try and kill [himself] and get rid of the pain of losing [his] sister, nan and so many friends’.
Brandon explained what some of us are lucky enough not to understand:
The people who smoke on the streets, like I did, think ‘I’m going to be out here until I die so I might as well speed it up and enjoy myself at the same time’.
According to Tommy, who was first offered the synthetic cannabinoid under the pretence of it being legal ‘fake weed’, Spice is the very reason he was homeless for so long.
It’s the easiest, cheapest escape drug on the market, he said, adding:
If you smoke Spice you’re not going to think about where you’re staying tonight, where you’re gonna have a wash, how you’re gonna eat tonight. You don’t think of nothing but where you’re gonna get your next bag.
There was a time after his two-year-old little girl was taken into care when Tommy sunk so deep into depression he said he’d rather get high than ask for help to get his life back on track.
So, he admits, he let Spice ‘annihilate’ him for eight years while he was on the streets, ‘frozen’ in time.
Spice is commonly called the ‘zombie’ drug for the way it disorientates and knocks users out cold for hours at a time.
As the unhelpful and offensive narrative of ‘The Walking Dead’ is pushed further into the mainstream by media outlets, the sad truth is Spice is tearing apart a formerly close homeless community, not just in Manchester, but all over the country.
London-born Brandon, who’s been clean for over a year, told UNILAD:
There used to be a code on the streets. You looked after your own. But now, someone’s getting their head kicked in? Others will sit and watch and pick over what’s left to sell for Spice.
It’s heartbreaking. These people used to be my friends, people I classed as family. Now they’re just ghosts.
He said giving someone Spice is like ‘handing them a death warrant’ – and ‘no one is immune’.
Having been to 400 funerals, the twenty-something’s sense of loss is profound:
I can walk down the street in Manchester now and I look out for people I know have been dead from Spice for months, even years.
It’s like chasing ghosts. They’re all dead… If not in body then in mind. They’re gone.
Shaun speaks to UNILAD the morning after his friend was beaten and drowned in a river, he alleges, over a bag of synthetic cannabinoids.
‘They’re killing each other for Spice’, laments Shaun, who has been unable to kick his habit which began ‘on H wing in Cell 21’ of HMP Manchester, otherwise known as Strangeways.
Brandon believes Spice has the ability to ‘strip you of your humanity’ and ‘take away everything you are as a person’. Tragically, some welcome the obliteration.
Ralphs compares the psychoses to that of LSD, the dissociative effects to ketamine, the aggression with crack cocaine or alcohol, and the addictiveness, warm highs and devastating withdrawal symptoms of heroin.
He says vulnerable communities are drawn into the world of Spice use, partly due to misinformation about its effects – hoping for an effect similar to cannabis, which, despite the name has very few similarities to Spice – and partly due to its ‘functionality’.
It’s very rare people would say they use it to chill out. The reason it’s become associated with the prison system and homeless community is because it’s popularity among those communities is linked to its functionality.
People use it to block out reality or kill time or to take them away from reality, whether that’s sleeping in a car park or being locked up in a cell for 20 hours a day.
Tommy, who’s smoked ‘a thousand lung’s worth of the stuff’ in the past, says Spice instills a uniquely poisonous kind of ‘madness’.
The now-charming and softly-spoken twenty-something recounts how his hallucinations caused him to threaten to kill his best friend and strangle his partner, having ‘messed with [his] brain’.
Tommy didn’t want to be another statistic though, he tells UNILAD as he walks the streets where he once slept. So he got help. He stopped smoking Spice.
As hard as withdrawal was, and as tempting as it can be to shy away from reality, in hindsight, he’s realised there’s no greater pain than Spice addiction.
Here’s some advice from the NHS about getting over addiction:
Tommy, who’s been given a room in a shared hostel in Moss Side by Lifeshare after eight years of living on the streets, talks about the benefits of having his own space, but adds the difficulty with staying off Spice can be partly traced back to the company you keep to keep safe within the homeless community.
Back to a healthy level of physical fitness – he once weighed just 55kg at the height of his addiction – Tommy is also left with the residual paranoia synonymous with using Spice.
As he walks the streets with UNILAD, he explains his need to look through the crowds to 50 heads in front, constantly looking out for a threat he believes isn’t there now he’s no longer carrying the drug.
‘It’s turned a community of people against each other,’ Julie Boyle, Criminal Justice Lead at Lifeshare tells UNILAD.
Julie has heard of cases of addicts becoming catatonic and being anally gang raped in their state of high, as well as others being forced into sex work to feed their addiction.
Lamenting how Spice has torn apart many factions of the homeless community in Manchester, which he would’ve described as ‘one big family’ just a few years ago, Tommy says, ‘we could be the best of friends but if we smoke Spice together we’ll be robbing each other blind for just one spliff’.
For example, Tommy has seen people roll a joint with weed at the top and Spice at the end. They take hits from the weed and when they taste spice pass it onto an unsuspecting victim who takes it thinking its cannabis.
Once they’re out cold, the first will rob them and leave them for dead.
Tommy has also witnessed the cruel criminal underbelly cowering in the shadows of vulnerable, unconscious Spice users. While high, he’s been spat on, stolen from, and set alight.
Indeed, 20 per cent of fire injuries and 19 per cent of fatalities resulting from fires in Greater Manchester involve someone suspected to be under the influence of drugs, reports the Greater Manchester Drug and Alcohol Strategy 2018-2021 draft document.
With the criminality on the streets prevailing, Julie says the sad self-fulfilling prophecy sees many of her clients take Spice just so they can get some sleep, free from the fear.
And yet, she says the roots causes of the proliferation of Spice addiction in Manchester is not a criminal, but rather, a mental health issue.
She muses why addicts put their lives in danger, every day:
What is it about someone’s life that’s so bad they need to be so far removed from reality? If we can get to those root causes we’ll be able to tackle this thing.
Criminalising it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. It’s not a deterrent. If something’s illegal, it’s illegal. But criminalising it doesn’t stop someone having an addiction.
Once they’re hooked everything else falls apart. No benefits, no accommodation, no families. They lose everything. The ripple effect is almost immediate. And it costs millions and millions of pounds to try and fix.
She cites the Psychoactive Substances Act of May 2016 which forced the trade underground and allowed black market dealers to increase the now-unregulated potency to exploit the vulnerable.
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, made law months later, 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’.
Two years down the line, and people like Tommy feel abandoned by our government:
There was no point me burying my head in the sand and sitting feeling sorry for myself because I had a drug problem. The only person who’s gonna help me is me. I need to ask for help and go to the services to ask.
As with all cases of addiction, Tommy, who has thought about pursuing a career in social support alongside construction work, understands grassroots prevention and education is so key.
It’s no use, the 22-year-old says, releasing pamphlets written by someone who doesn’t understand what Spice can do to the human condition.
He speaks from experience after Lifeshare, where some of the volunteers have walked a mile in Tommy’s shoes, gave him a lifeline.
Moreover, the public perception of the homeless community – who experience a hard enough life as it is – is worsening.
Passersby see the devastating effects of Spice use but turn away from what Tommy dubs the ‘disgusting’ consequences.
Greater Manchester Police have had over 1,300 calls about Spice in the city centre since January 1, 2017, with intelligence being used to target organised crime gangs responsible for production and dealing in Greater Manchester.
Further to that, 55 people have been arrested for possession with intent to supply Spice and 90 others for being in possession of the drug in the city centre, with ‘many of these people directed to support services’.
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.
Although Tommy doesn’t agree with giving a homeless person small change, donations of socks, jumpers and food can serve as a practical help and a ‘little lift’; an act of kindness which might just make someone searching for escape look someplace other than the bottom off a spliff.
Julie concluded, ‘Be tolerant, recognise some people are that way, and don’t judge. It’s not a nice, glamorous lifestyle.’
Meanwhile, Tommy says he laughs in the face of abuse and stigma he faces from members of the ignorant public, saying ‘people’s lives can change in an instant – no matter what they have it could be them sitting where I am now come next week.’
In other words, 37 per cent of households are just one paycheck away from not being able to afford their mortgage, 31 per cent of homeless people end up on the streets having lost short-term tenancies, and 20 per cent of women who resort to life on the streets doing so to escape a violent home, according to the ONS and Shelter.
The statistics seem to corroborate Tommy’s justifiably cynical wisdom, spurred on by cuts to welfare, local government and mental health funding, as well as a lack of social housing.
The only way to decrease spice is to reduce numbers of rough sleepers, which have risen since austerity and cuts to housing benefits and universal credit.
His colleague, Psychopharmaceutical Chemist at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, told UNILAD he believes spice will ‘continue to be a problem within vulnerable communities in prisons and the homeless community because those individuals can be exploited’.
Bev Hughes, Greater Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Fire doesn’t believe the growing problem of homelessness will be ‘solved by doing more of the same’.
Adding is ‘needs new thinking and new solutions’ she told UNILAD tackling the ‘serious problem’ of abuse of psychoactive substances is a part of Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s clear goal of ending the need for rough sleeping by 2020.
Hughes asserted the importance of preventative approaches:
Criminalisation of vulnerable and excluded people can simply make them more vulnerable and excluded, but we also need to acknowledge that there is a real impact on the public and people rightly expect to see action.
In the main I would prefer to see preventative approaches and interventions which tackle the reasons why people are drawn to use Spice and other substances.
The Deputy Mayor cited the Housing First programme and the work of The Greater Manchester Drug Alert Panel, made up of a number of key partners including Greater Manchester Police, Manchester City Council, Manchester Metropolitan University, the NHS, and drug treatment services, which monitors the types of Spice in circulation and advises the police and other services how best to respond.
Admitting there is more to do, Hughes said GMCA has made a commitment not to discharge people from hospital into homelessness which she hopes will be extended to the criminal justice system.
Ultimately, I would like to see us exert greater control over our welfare system so that we can direct this resource into supporting homelessness prevention and promoting wellbeing.
Make no mistake, the effort to tackle the humanitarian crisis that is homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Combined Authority.
Whatever our challenges as a country we are rich enough to put a roof over every head every night of the week – our aim is that, in Greater Manchester, this will soon become the norm.
Mayor Andy Burnham has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2020, but recently admitted his mission would be a ‘stretch’, despite establishing the Mayor’s Homelessness Fund which he kickstarted by donating 15 per cent of his Mayoral salary each month.
The Mayor himself was unable to comment due to annual leave commitments.
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