With Spice addiction affecting 95 per cent of the homeless community in Manchester, and ravaging city centres up and down the country, an important question remains: How can we put an end to the epidemic?
Recovery from Spice addiction is a particularly potent breed of hell, says former user, Tommy, 22, from Oldham, who tells UNILAD he hates walking through Manchester everyday ‘because [he] can’t stand the smell of it now’.
UNILAD found out why he vowed to ‘never touch Spice again’:
Shaun tried Spice – or ‘fake weed’ as he once naively called the substance – ‘on H wing in Strangeways Prison in cell 21’, after a fellow prisoner told him its effects might alleviate his crack cocaine addiction.
Now, over two years later, the twenty-something homeless man is caught in a vicious cycle between his Spice addiction, and his addiction to crack cocaine and heroin, none of which Shaun can kick.
His story is not unusual on the streets of Manchester and other major cities across the UK, from Nottingham to Newcastle, by way of Glasgow and Swansea.
Synthetic cannabinoids were designed in labs to combat withdrawal symptoms of cannabis before being banned by the government and forced underground, where the potency and addictive qualities of Spice shot through the roof in the hands of criminal gangs, who pulled the ground out from underneath vulnerable users’ feet.
Rob Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, shared the sad narrative of how the ‘third generation of Spice’ came to be a common killer.
The original strain of Spice, which was ten times more potent than cannabis, 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.
But eight years of the Misuse of Drugs Act has ‘just led to more potent strains being developed’, according to Ralphs, who claims third generation strains of Spice are 800 times more potent than cannabis.
Now, many users – some of whom were already addicted to Spice when it was banned from head shops – report it’s ‘harder to kick than heroin’, with some in the north of England renaming Spice ‘green crack’ or ‘herbal smack’.
It’s one of the world’s most damaging drugs:
Ralphs, who has conducted extensive research with ex-inmates like Shaun, said users typically begin by rolling 30 or 40 joints out of one gram.
But tolerance builds up alongside Spice addiction, so much so, many report smoking ‘five to six grams a day with a half gram pack in one joint’, he said.
Now, with ‘non-vulnerable’ recreational users protected under the ban, it seems the most at-risk have been forgotten and left to rot with little infrastructure beyond charitable foundations to support them on their road to recovery.
Brandon (pictured), who started using Spice to appease night terrors elicited by childhood abuse, was smoking 58 grams a day when he ruptured his own stomach and vomited ‘a pint and a half of [his] own blood’.
The twenty-something Londoner fell into a 14-day coma after smoking one particularly potent joint.
Brandon shared his symptoms in the hope it’ll warn others off Spice use:
I’ve had blood clots on my brain. My mental health has taken a serious nose dive. Sometimes I struggle remembering what happened yesterday because of the irreparable chemical damage Spice has done to my body.
I’ve got massive problems with my digestive system because Spice created this ball of chemicals in my stomach which has hardened, like hair. When you try and pass it, it rips you up internally on its way out.
It has killed me physically. I’ll be lucky if I make it to 50. I’ll never be a good example but I might as well be a brilliant warning.
Ralphs (pictured) compares the psychoses of Spice to LSD, the dissociative effects to Ketamine, the aggression with crack cocaine or alcohol, and the addictiveness, warm highs and devastating withdrawal symptoms of Spice to those experienced by heroin addicts.
Equating Spice to Crystal Meth, Tommy (pictured below) adds:
Heroin isn’t as strong as Spice these days. I know heroin addicts who’d rather smoke a bag of Spice than their gear ‘cos it’s stronger.
It’s killer. But when I was on it I loved it. That’s the thing.
Indeed, Spice has been used to self-medicate by heroin addicts over the years since the lab developments ceased.
But not before they opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box to Spice addiction, which has become an even more terrifying monster.
Dr Oliver Sutcliffe (pictured below) a psychopharmaceutical chemist at Manchester Metropolitan University told UNILAD it’s a ‘snapshot’ of what’s being seen across the world.
Historically these compounds were designed in labs for benign purposes, in the hopes they’d function as potential treatments for emerging diseases.
They were also designed as possible compounds to be used in cannabis withdrawal, in the same way methadone is used in heroin withdrawal.
But then obviously the side effects were seen in preliminary tests and therefore they were cancelled in further development.
The irony how Spice – a substance supposed to alleviate dependency on a much less harmful drug – is now destroying the lives of vulnerable addicts who get hooked after their first hit, is lost on no one.
As with all addiction, recovery is a delicate balance between the desire to get better and the desire to use, and Dr Sutcliffe warned every substance ‘has the potential to be addictive, whether that be psychological or physical’.
Coming off Spice, however, was hell.
Tommy experienced three weeks of the usual arsenal of Spice withdrawals, including painful cramps, uncontrollable sweating, vomiting and passing blood in his feaces, for which he was hospitalised.
The withdrawal experience is enough to push anyone to shy away from reality through drug use, Tommy said, but in hindsight, he realised there’s no greater pain than smoking Spice.
So he was able to kick the habit, and in doing so, has found himself a home off the streets after eight years of homelessness and is pursuing his construction qualifications.
Now back to a healthy level of physical fitness – he once weighed just 55kg at the height of his Spice addiction – Tommy is still left battling the residual paranoia synonymous with using synthetic cannabinoids.
As he walks the streets with UNILAD, he narrates how he looks through the crowds, 50 heads in front, constantly feeling the need to guard against for a threat he believes isn’t there now he’s no longer carrying Spice.
With the charity Lifeshare estimating 95 per cent of homeless people in Manchester have taken Spice, surely there’s an effective treatment to combat the drug’s effects?
However, Ralphs says any progress has been hindered over debates about the best treatment options.
While there’s a ‘long history of treatment services which work for heroin users or crack cocaine users’ many Spice addicts think they don’t need treatment services because they’re not using needles.
Furthermore, for Spice addiction there’s no substitute medication ‘so many addicts refuse treatment because there’s no alternative offered to appease their addiction’.
Ralphs adds the mentality is to ‘treat what’s in front of you’:
Services usually offer treatment for symptoms and education as to how to use less and use more safely and psychological support to help addicts through times when their drug use is heightened because of social traumatic triggers.
We’ve seen in the last twenty years, the UK divert attention from a health-based approach with harm reduction to drug use to a criminalisation of so-called problematic users under New Labour.
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.
Enforcement action has seen us tackle dealers and use intelligence to target organised crime gangs across Greater Manchester – 55 people have been arrested for possession with intent to supply spice since January 2017 in the city centre alone.
In addition to this we’ve also arrested 90 others for being in possession of the drug, with many of these people directed to support services.
It’s crucial 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 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.
While the authorities are doing the work required of them by law passed down by government, there’s no denying these have left the homeless community feeling very alone.
Brandon theorises the government have failed to stop the Spice epidemic simply because the death rates mean they have fewer homeless people to ‘take care of’.
Tommy chimed in:
There’s no point burying your head in the sand and sitting feeling sorry for yourself because I’ve got 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.
He understands he can’t force his friends who are still using to take steps to recover, because as with all addiction, the journey to recovery has to come from within.
That’s why grassroots prevention and education is so key.
Meanwhile, it’s no use releasing pamphlets written by someone who doesn’t know how Spice addiction can obliterate the human condition, says Tommy, who understands better than most why so many homeless people – particularly younger members of the community – turn to synthetic cannabinoids to escape their harsh realities.
There’s been a 68 per cent increase in hospital admissions related to substance misuse amongst those aged 15-24 over the last six years in Greater Manchester (latest reporting period 2013/14 – 15/16) and the increased potency of Spice is putting a strain on emergency services in city centres.
Tommy told UNILAD, some paramedics he knows find the rates of calls for help related to Spice ‘annoying’, adding he doesn’t blame the stretched emergency services for feeling overwhelmed by ‘getting calls 50 times a day for the same thing’.
Worse, those on the frontline often can’t take the appropriate emergency treatment action because they don’t even know ‘what the f*ck you’ve consumed that day’, laced as Spice is now with various other chemicals, including Fentanyl, an opioid painkiller a hundred times stronger than morphine, which is sometimes used recreationally in heroin.
A spokesperson from the North West Ambulance Service said:
In recent years, the trust has received a number of 999 calls following the use of psychoactive substances which can often lead to varied and unpredictable symptoms.
The patients can often present to us extremes of behaviour or unconsciousness, but this can change very quickly, making it difficult for ambulance clinicians to manage their condition. However, we treat each patient based on the symptoms they are presenting with rather than the substance they have taken.
We are unable to give specific figures but we have noticed the use of these substances in Greater Manchester although it’s seen across the region and we’ve seen a slight reduction in these types of calls in recent months.
NWAS has, when required, worked alongside colleagues from the police and local councils to help support these often vulnerable patients.
The group of substances under the umbrella term of Spice are very unpredictable and so, are a bit of a minefield for medics, not only in terms of first response but also treating addiction, Dr Sutcliffe adds.
There’s been a 70 per cent rise in drug-related deaths in Greater Manchester over the last 10 years. This translates to 479 deaths in three years (2014-16) involving drug poisoning or legal and illegal drugs and drug misuse of controlled drugs.
Here’s some advice from the NHS about dealing with addiction:
People are needlessly dying at the hands of drugs like Spice. Despite what the papers say, these people are not ‘zombies’ or members of The Walking Dead.
They are people with a Spice addiction developed because life dealt them a hard hand.
You wouldn’t refuse to help someone trying to quit smoking or turn an alcoholic away just because they struggled to stop drinking.
How is this any different?
If you want friendly, confidential advice about drugs you can talk to FRANK. You can call 0300 123 6600, text 82111 or email 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Or Live Chat from 2pm-6pm any day of the week.