“It is the great delusion of our time – that we can solve these problems with policing. It seems to persist as every decade goes by, despite all drugs being more available, cheaper and more dangerous. It’s about public perception of the problem being solved, rather than a problem being solved. And wherever that political con manifests itself, we all have a duty to challenge it and say ‘okay, if this is your solution, where’s the evidence, what are you basing it on?’”

I was speaking with former undercover drugs officer Neil Woods about whether policing can ever meaningfully tackle problems in need of social solutions.

Our discussion came a few days after the leader of Westminster Council, Nickie Aiken, called for the psychoactive substances known as Spice to be categorised as a Class A drug.

Neil was unconvinced of the merits of any form of criminalisation for the possession of these synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), colloquially known as ‘Spice’.

While last year’s Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) made the manufacture and sale of this group of drugs illegal, a thriving illicit street market has emerged in its wake with a stranglehold over vulnerable groups such as rough sleepers.

Reports of the latest volatile side-effects of Spice to be witnessed are now a regular occurrence.

The most recent, showing people in Manchester bent double while still standing, like ‘statues’, joins a worryingly long list which already includes aggression, seizures, heart failure, psychosis, vomiting, unconsciousness and hallucinations.

As the production of Spice has gone underground, it’s likely that its potency has increased, and so more adverse effects are now becoming more apparent.

But how to begin to confront the cycle of futility rough sleepers smoking the highly addictive substance are finding themselves in – especially when its particular side-effects make this group, at once, the most in need of support and the most difficult to help?

In the heart of one of the country’s richest areas, politicians and police claim to have some answers.

Westminster has the highest number of rough sleepers in England, with Spice use among them branded an ‘epidemic’.

In October, Councillor Aiken, then Westminster Council’s cabinet member for public protection, spoke with urgency about how the “Spice epidemic is evolving with terrifying speed” and rough sleepers in the borough were being specifically targeted by dealers.

She acknowledged that the PSA had led to an increased volume of Spice on the streets and that, while a number of police operations had taken place under this new law, “the demand for Spice is so high that the law remains an occupational hazard rather than a real deterrent”.

Counsellor Nickie Aiken.
Counsellor Nickie Aiken.

Public meetings were organised and expert roundtables convened.

By January of this year, it is understood that the council felt measures had been taken to address the situation.

But, when asked, several times, for details of what these measures were, it refused to provide any details.

Instead, it issued a statement from Councillor Antonia Cox, its new cabinet member for public protection, which read:

“Westminster City Council has campaigned hard to raise awareness of the negative impact Spice has on the most at-risk people in our community.

“It is heartbreaking to see people whose lives have been utterly destroyed by this terrible drug. As a society, we need to break the cycle of addiction and to support our vulnerable people, particularly rough sleepers. Westminster City Council spends over £6.5m a year on rough sleeping services and is committed to working with partners to tackle the impact Spice has on our community.”

Interestingly, what the statement didn’t mention was that, at the end of last year, the latest generation of SCRAs, including Spice, were categorised as Class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) and their possession made illegal – something Westminster’s Conservative councillors had actively lobbied for.

Vocalised or not, it is clear that the borough’s primary solution to addressing its rough sleeping Spice crisis now lies in this law – a tool being used by the police in an attempt to sweep Westminster’s streets clean of the problem without, apparently, criminalising the vulnerable.

“Concerned for the welfare of those who are considered the most vulnerable in our society, we brought together experts in homelessness, drug addiction, as well as the police and National Crime Agency to find workable solutions,” Cllr Aiken had said in January.

“One strand was to lobby the Home Secretary to reclassify the drug to allow the police to seize it from those possessing it, which could lead to their harm.”

As a Class B substance under the MDA, anyone in possession of Spice could now face up to five years in prison or a fine.

Given that last year’s PSA had the specific intention of not criminalising possession, the subsequent change does seem odd.

However, it is likely that the move was always on the cards, notwithstanding any lobbying.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advised the Government on the harms associated with the third generation of SCRAs in 2014. Since they were considered similar in this regard to other Class B substances such as cannabis, as well as previous generations of SCRAs, they were added to the statute book.

It may well be that its new Class B status will, in practice, be primarily used by police to catch street dealers of Spice in the act more easily.

But, that does not leave the option of criminalising users off the table.

Packets of SCRAs such as 'Spice' and 'Black Mamba'
Packets of SCRAs such as ‘Spice’ and ‘Black Mamba’

In an online summary of a meeting of Westminster Council’s public protection policy and scrutiny committee held last month, it was suggested that police would use their discretion as to whether users caught with the drug would actually have any action taken against them.

“The police will now be able to stop, search and arrest individuals in possession of Spice,” it said.

“The police will also be able to seize the drug, without arrest, to protect vulnerable individuals from its dangerous effects, without the need to criminalise them.

“Currently, police operations are focusing on arresting dealers and, as a result, a large quantity of Spice has been removed from the streets. This is a lengthy process as the drug has to be submitted to the Home Office for testing before any charge can be considered. Additional police resources are being used to increase visibility and reassure businesses and residents.”

The summary said the council’s rough sleeping team had also been mapping rough sleepers and ensuring “their social care action plans are appropriate”, that treatment services had developed training for staff and outreach workers engaging with Spice users, and that “this will help establish a hybrid social care and enforcement response”.

Significantly, it then added: “So far, this approach has resulted in Criminal Behaviour Order bundles, which are currently being prepared for court.”

Criminal Behaviour Orders are the descendants of ASBOs.

And this approach is already having a positive effect in Westminster, the summary noted.

“Towards the end of 2016, reports from our accommodation services highlighted an alarming amount of overdoses and incidents of psychosis caused by excessive use of Spice. These incidents have led to many frontline workers experiencing violent behaviour amongst habitual users. However, more recent feedback suggests less of these incidents are now occurring, particularly since police activity targeting Spice has been increased.”

Neil Woods doesn’t buy it.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to say that this will allow people to get help, because it’s only a tool for enforcement, it’s only a tool for punitive measures, that’s all that making it Class B is – there is more chance of criminalising people,” he told me.

“I think this whole thing is about the nuisance of homeless people – it’s a blunt instrument to deal with it.

“There is no logic at all to the idea that now police will be using their discretion. They didn’t need to use their discretion before as they wouldn’t have been able to criminalise people. But, if you bring in a rule where you can criminalise people, then people will be criminalised.

“This idea that ‘we’ve got these powers but we won’t use them because we’re actually more interested in protecting vulnerable people’, well, if that’s the case, you don’t need the powers. If you have these powers, they will always be used.”

“I’ve seen a great number of drug-related deaths and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them could have been prevented by legal regulation.” Neil Woods (Image: Transform)
Neil Woods (Image: Transform)

Taking a less subtle tone than Westminster Council, the Met Police has said it has welcomed Spice’s Class B categorisation – making it clear that they will use the law to take action against individuals, including users, if necessary.

The force said that they have been carrying out operations in the borough to advise the community of the law change and launched ‘Operation Kaskara’, which has seen a dispersal zone put in place and officers deployed across the borough to deal with antisocial behaviour and crime related to Spice.

In a statement, Westminster’s Detective Superintendent Jane Corrigan, said: “From late December to early January we have been actively involved in educating users about the dangers, signposting users to support services to get the message out there. Operation Kaskara aims to tackle the impact of Spice within the heart of London providing a deterrent to those who want to deal or use it on the streets.”

When I asked the Met how Spice use in Westminster was being tackled, a spokesman said: “The Met is pleased with the progress made under the new legislation, which has assisted greatly in reducing the availability and accessibility of many harmful substances to persons who are not aware of the associated dangers.

“The powers provided by the MDA allow us to deal with persons who seek to profit from the trading of untested and dangerous products. It has also helped us to address antisocial behaviour driven by the consumption of such substances.”

Making the potential criminalisation of Spice users explicit, he added: “The work we continue to carry out, in partnership with Westminster Council, is important in raising awareness among users that they could now face arrest.

“We will always look to work closely with charities and part of our proactive approach involves offering advice and support to users about how they can get help.

“But we must, of course, balance this against taking action where individuals are adamant in breaking the law.”

Neil is adamant that Spice should not have been made a Class B drug, let alone be elevated to the Class A category, which he believes would greatly increase the violence experienced by those on the streets.

“Making it Class B is a great opportunity missed to have gathered the evidence of a small pocket of the market being decriminalised,” he said.

“The chance to have explored a more liberal approach, a more forgiving and understanding approach, and they’ve just gone for the old-fashioned punitive measures, more prohibition, which we can see hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work in the future.”

The author of Good Cop, Bad War believes expecting the police to tackle what is, at its root cause, a social problem is “naïve”.

“The homeless situation and the plight of vulnerable people can never successfully be dealt with by policing. Punitive measures are not going to help traumatised people,” he told me.

“You also have to look at the cost of policing. In a time of squeezed budgets, this is giving the police more things to do and naïvely expecting policing to solve the problem, despite the evidence that these problems have not been solved by policing so far.

“So, if you think, just in terms of costs and where else the money could be spent, clearly, we’re talking about vulnerable people and surely investment in health, housing or even hostels would be a far, far better approach for looking after these people’s problems than criminalising them.”

Making Spice a Class A drug would be the “ultimate backward move”.

“It’s like thinking something doesn’t work, so let’s ban it more,” he said.

“You get a substantially higher prison sentence for dealing Class A than you do for Class B. So, because the risk is higher to those gang members that sell them, this prompts a strategic ethos to defend themselves against the risk by being more violent. The best defence against the use of police informants or police undercover tactics for drug dealing is to completely intimidate the communities in which you operate. The most successful gangs in drug dealing are the ones that can be the most intimidating because no one will grass them up. That’s how it plays out.

“All that moving it to Class A will do is make the market in which homeless people will be looking to buy their commodities much more dangerous. There will be more opportunities for arresting users and for them to receive longer prison sentences, which will mean, in the case of the homeless, traumatised people will be receiving more trauma.”

(Flickr - Megan Schmidt-Frede)
(Flickr – Megan Schmidt-Frede)

My requests for an interview with Councillor Aiken, who is now leader of Westminster Council, were declined.

But, last week, media reports surfaced of her belief that Spice should be reclassified as a Class A drug “due to its devastating impact among vulnerable rough sleepers”.

“We are currently in the grip of an epidemic and I, along with the local police, believe we need to go even further to highlight the dangers that are associated with this drug,” she said.

Rather than a public health campaign, or updating outreach efforts with rough sleepers using Spice, it would appear that Cllr Aiken’s weapon of choice for sending these signals is predictably, if unfortunately, reclassification under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The Home Office has said it currently has no plans to upgrade Spice’s classification.

Only time will tell.

But the clock on the Spice epidemic is already ticking, and an effective solution is needed. It won’t be found, simply, in stern words and increased sanctions.

Hardeep Matharu is a justice and social affairs journalist and Investigations Writer at Volteface. Tweets @Hardeep_Matharu

Want to comment or contribute?

Join the debate on twitter @VolteFaceHub