You’ve probably heard of Spice – it sounds like a nineties novelty club drug named by uninventive teens, doesn’t it? A drug you might have passed around nonchalantly in a dingy under-16s gig venue when smoking inside was still legal.
‘It’s a new age drug and everyone wants to have a go,’ said Tommy, an Oldham-born former addict in his twenties, smirking at the ignorance before quickly adding Spice is, in actual fact, a highly-addictive ‘killer’ he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemy.
UNILAD took to the streets of Manchester to find out why:
What UNILAD found was the heart-breaking but complex story of an incredibly misunderstood substance on which many users were hooked long before it was criminalised in May 2016 under the Psychoactive Substances Act.
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’.
The fallout has been severe and the subsequent dehumanisation of addicts – who are constantly ostracised as ‘zombies’ or dismissed as ‘The Walking Dead’ – is a blight on our front page tabloid headlines.
So here’s the sensationally sad truth: Spice is an umbrella term for any synthetic cannabinoid on the market.
The chemical compounds of synthetic cannabinoids are dissolved in liquid and sprayed onto inert substances, like marshmallow plants, which can be bought at high street stores such as Holland and Barrett.
They are dried and sold to users, and when smoked, the chemicals react with the same receptors as the active part of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Here’s where the similarity ends.
‘Third generation’ strains of Spice – which are sometimes mixed using nail varnish remover or alloy cleaner – have been found to be 800 times more potent than cannabis, and many users report it’s ‘harder to kick than heroin’.
So why do the misconceptions regarding Spice – still called ‘fake weed’ by some – persist?
Well, it looks a lot like weed, explains Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, a psychopharmaceutical chemist at Manchester Metropolitan University, but it’s not a natural substrate.
His colleague, criminologist Rob Ralphs, said:
It’s got aspects of almost every other type of drug but cannabis. It’s very rare people would say they use it to chill out. It’s become associated with the prison system and homeless community because of 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.
Ralphs (pictured) compares Spice psychoses to those experienced with LSD, the dissociative effects to that of ketamine, the aggression to crack cocaine or alcohol, and the addictiveness, warm highs and devastating withdrawal symptoms to those of heroin.
It wasn’t always quite this extreme.
Historically, this type of new psychoactive substance (NPS) was designed in 2009 for benign purposes, in the hopes it would function as a potential treatment for emerging diseases and cannabis withdrawal, Sutcliffe (pictured) tells UNILAD.
Unlike cannabis, which is associated with relaxation, synthetic cannabinoids have a set of side effects which read like a horror story: Bleeding orifices, catatonia, violent withdrawal, seizures, self-harm, paranoia, vomiting, and suicide ideation.
Brandon, who started using Spice to appease night terrors elicited by childhood abuse in care, was smoking 58 grams a day when he ruptured his own stomach and vomited ‘a pint and a half of [his] own blood’.
He fell into a 14-day coma after smoking one particularly potent joint.
Brandon shared his symptoms in the hopes 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.
So, of course, the first generation of synthetic cannabinoids were never developed for official use.
However, it did find its way into so-called head shops via companies like Vertex, packaged into sealed packets with enigmatic names like Space Cadet and Clockwork Orange, labelled ‘Not For Human Consumption’, but listed as legal highs and sold to hen parties and Northern Quarter hipsters.
The irony that 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.
Julie Boyle, Criminal Justice Lead at the crisis charity Lifeshare, recalled how people sick of getting pulled over by police who seized their weed flocked to the head shops, resorting to ‘accessible’ legal highs.
Once the dangers of addiction became clear to those working on the ground with vulnerable communities, the government took steps to protect recreational users from Spice, by outlawing production, distribution, and the sale or supply of such substances.
It certainly worked as a deterrent for some, Ralphs told UNILAD, but added the government’s ‘prohibition policies’ underestimated the market for legal highs claiming to replicate cannabis – and it was too late for people like Brandon and Tommy.
‘The act did what it set out to do, on the most basic level’, he said, but it failed to understand the nuance of addiction, and simply served to push Spice onto the illegal market in unregulated forms far more dangerous than ever before.
Now, in its ‘third generation’ this new adulterated Spice can have a potency 800 times stronger than cannabis, according to Ralph’s research, created by opportunistic dealers who prey on the vulnerable prison populations and homeless communities up and down the country, from Nottingham to Newcastle.
So UNILAD asked the people who know best how the third generation of Spice is, as one anonymous user puts it, ‘f*cking his life up and f*cking the country up’.
Equating the potency of Spice today to the damaging effects of Crystal Meth, Tommy said:
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.
Shaun tried Spice because he was falsely told its effects might alleviate his crack cocaine addiction, taking his first hit of what he, once upon a time, called fake weed ‘on H wing in Strangeways Prison in cell 21’.
After serving 18 months he came out of prison in early 2016 and went straight to the head shops where he bought a whole packet of Black Kronic Spice, legally, for a fiver and later a half ounce for £15.
The packets, advertising the ingredients bought over the counter, gave Spice an air of legitimacy in Shaun’s mind.
He, and many more, were already addicted when it was criminalised just a few months later. But since the ban, Shaun says he’s witnessed changes in Spice which are ‘putting everyone who smokes it in hospital’.
Shaun claims he never had the ‘crippling stomach pains’, which double him up as he speaks, when Spice was legal and sold in sealed packets – not the anonymous baggies you see changing hands on the streets now.
As he shows UNILAD where the old shops used to be, he muses:
Spice now, it doesn’t taste like it did in the shops or smell like it did in the shops. It’s different. It smells of ammonia and nail varnish remover when you light it. You only need one pull and you’re out.
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 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 partially 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.
Sutcliffe and Ralphs – two of the few UK experts with the resources to uncover what is going into Spice – are now playing a game of catch up with dealers who keep changing the chemical makeup of their illicit substances and dodging the ban, one single molecule at a time.
Tommy, who smoked ‘a thousand lung’s worth of the stuff’ when he was using over a year ago, said nowadays even he can’t tell the potency or content of street Spice sold in unspecified forms and in non-descript baggies.
He recalled a time when he strangled his beloved partner in the throes of a bad trip:
Every drag is a 50/50 chance of whether you’re gonna live or die. I’ve had a few bad experiences where it’s knocked my f*cking head off; I’ve started to trip out and hallucinate.
Brandon, who’s also now ‘on the wagon’, echoed this sentiment saying:
Now you don’t know where the product has come from, you don’t know what’s in it, if anything’s been added to it, and you don’t know how powerful it is. Basically, it’s a game of roulette and one drag could drop you dead.
Much like the drug itself, trends in Spice use are uncertain as ‘poor’ records only date back to January 2017 when the substances were outlawed, admits the HM Inspectorate of Probation and the Care Quality Commission, which investigated the response by probation and substance misuse services in England.
We do know 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, sometimes used recreationally in heroin.
But unlike a heroin overdose, there is no quick fix to a Spice overdose.
A spokesperson from the North West Ambulance Service told UNILAD:
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 with 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 that 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 is seen across the region and we have 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.
Greater Manchester Police have had 1,300 calls in which the caller references suspected Spice use in the city centre since January 2017.
55 people have been arrested for possession with intent to supply Spice since January 2017 in the city centre alone.
Additionally, the authorities have arrested 90 others for being in possession of the drug, ‘with many of these people directed to support services’.
Superintendent Chris Hill, GMP’s commander for the city centre, told UNILAD:
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.
Meanwhile it’s no use releasing pamphlets written by someone who doesn’t know how Spice can obliterate the human condition, says 22-year-old Tommy, adding the general populace needs to better understand why the most vulnerable members of our society turn to Spice.
He says he used to laugh in the face of abuse and stigma, because ‘lives can change in an instant – no matter what you have now it could be you sitting where I am now come next week.’
There were 3,756 drug-related deaths registered in England and Wales in 2017 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
It is the sixth year in a row that the ONS has registered an increase and 2017 is now the year with the highest number of registered drug-related deaths since records began.
Executive director of the drug awareness charity Release, Niamh Eastwood, said:
The government is driving this devastating public health crisis by punishing people for their drug use instead of implementing compassionate, evidence-based policies.
By criminalising people for drug possession, the government is dissuading people who want help from seeking it. This, in turn, is fuelling drug-related deaths.
This is a national crisis, and it requires a coordinated, national public health response. Instead we are seeing a disconnected, localised approach that fails to protect vulnerable people, and an overarching national strategy that primarily harms people who already marginalised.
The government has also slashed funding to essential treatment services, leaving thousands of people left at the mercy of a postcode lottery as to whether their local authorities will provide the support they need.
So UNILAD asked the people who know all too well how Spice users and the drug on which they are dependent are still misunderstood by the public, mishandled by the press and mistreated by the Powers That Be.
Along the way, entangled in a web of socioeconomic struggle and cuts to services for the vulnerable, are men and women like Tommy and Brandon who have battled against the odds to get clean, and as Brandon puts it, subjected to a life of ‘chasing ghosts’ of those who weren’t able to be so strong.
It’s time we, as a society, learned to understand.
Follow UNILAD’s Dark Side Of Britain: Spice series every night at 8pm over the next week on our social channels to find out more.
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.
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.