Impact of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act on synthetic cannabinoid use within homeless population

by Ella Walsh

The Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) was introduced in 2016, making the production or supply of any chemical substances that may be used for its psychoactive effects a criminal offence. The introduction of this law was in response to growing concerns over the grey area through which New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) were legally being sold in shops on the high street, and aimed to remove them from retail.

Since the Bill was first announced, advocates have been raising concerns about the potential impact of this ‘blanket ban’. Drugs researchers predicted that the inevitable merger of NPS sales into the traditional illicit market would make it more risky for established users.

Since the bill received royal assent, advocates have highlighted concerns about the potential impact of a ‘blanket ban.’ Equally, lawmakers raised questions regarding the jurisprudence of essentially banning any substance that has a psychoactive effect.

A report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has shown that since the introduction of the PSA, there has been a noticeable shift in the demographic of synthetic cannabinoid users, and the type of use. Before PSA, use of synthetic cannabinoids was primarily associated with the recreational market. Now, use of synthetic cannabinoids is mostly found among vulnerable groups including people who are homeless, in drug treatment, and in prisons.

From an advocacy and harm reduction perspective, this is gravely concerning to see such a dramatic shift in use and users as an implication of the PSA. These vulnerable groups are already so disproportionately exposed to the harms of drugs and drug markets, and this shows how policy, especially when reactive, fails to take into account and address the nuances of drug related harm. It’s incredibly important to spotlight the work of researchers and academics who are dedicated to understanding the implications of such policy on vulnerable groups. 

Research findings from a recent study by Rob Ralphs, Paul Graya and Oliver Sutcliffe

lend support to the conclusions of this EMCDDA report, showing that the introduction of PSA is associated with a rise in use of synthetic cannabinoids amongst homeless populations. 

The sociological part of this research is made up of interviews with a sample of participants, identified through key services, who were active synthetic cannabinoid users, and experiencing homlessness or living as if they are homeless (i.e. spending much of their time on the street despite having somewhere to stay). They also interviewed a sample of key stakeholders who  actively engage in the support of these vulnerable populations, i.e. drug treatment workers, social workers, mental health nurses, police officers.

The analytical chemical research component of this study used samples of spice seized by the Manchester Metropolitan Police Force, and sent to Manchester Metropolitan University for testing through the established MANDRAKE. This test provides data revealing the type and concentration of synthetic cannabinoids in the samples, which enables researchers to draw conclusions on changes in the chemical composition of synthetic cannabinoids over time. Though this research acknowledges that the chemical analysis data prior to the PSA is limited. 

There were some interesting and illuminating findings extrapolated from the qualitative part of this research. One key finding from the interviews with relevant stakeholders highlighted that while the PSA was effective in it’s aim of removing synthetic cannabinoids from retail, the introduction of this law ‘narrowed the range of synthetic cannabinoid users’, namely from young people to people experiencing homelessness. 

This research shows that synthetic cannabinoids once were sold in an established market, completely separate to the illicit drug market. However, since the introduction of the PSA there has been an evolution within the illicit drug market to accommodate for the demand. There were several key stakeholders commenting on the concerning rise of ‘one stop suppliers’, who increased the exposure of young synthetic cannabinoid users to other traditional drugs, such as crack and heroin. 

Another key finding from this study reveals that there are much younger dealers selling synthetic cannabinoids than traditional drugs. The study also highlighted potential impact of their sales approaches on the demographics of people using, such as approaching people who are begging on the street. Moreover, they found that this new ‘type’ of dealer was often more aggressive and violent than traditional drug dealers. This finding was inline with their previous study that identified a level of violence associated within the illicit synthetic cannabinoid market, which was unseen when it was sold in retail shops. This research reveals new harms and risks associated with purchasing and using synthetic cannabinoids since the PSA, such as people being stabbed when changing suppliers. 

Key stakeholders have also raised concerns with regards to the negative impact of synthetic cannabinoid use on the services provided by homelessness organisations, due to the harms and risks discussed. For example where there is a risk of harm to workers who have to engage with people experiencing homlessness in the city centre, where dealers create hostile and unsafe work environments.

It’s extremely concerning that this evolution within the illicit market is having such a direct impact on the provision of these services, preventing workers from providing essential support for people in need of accommodation. 

One final, but important impact revealed by key stakeholders is an increase in high potency synthetic cannabinoid, which is related to an increase in problematic use, harm and demand on emergency services. Although this study highlights that this finding is more likely related to the development of the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids, which are more potent. 

The results of the chemical analysis of samples tested at the university highlights a dramatic range in potency and concentration of synthetic cannabinoid, for example one sample contained 1.25 mg, and another contained 116.83 mg. Moreover, they found less variability among the types of synthetic cannabinoids than those identified by the UK Forensic Early Warning System in a report prior to the introduction of the PSA. This research reveals the prevalence of only three different types of synthetic cannabinoids among this sampling, with some samples containing more than one type. 

The study provides supporting evidence that the third generation synthetic cannabinoids, that they have identified, are dominant in the UK illicit market. This is a particular concern because they are more potent in their effects, and are related to a spike in deaths globally. Unlike the clear link between the PSA and the change in demographic of synthetic cannabinoid users, the research wasn’t able to establish whether the prevalence of third generation synthetic cannabinoids can be fairly attributed to the introduction of the PSA, or whether this evolution would have taken place anyways. 

The study concludes that there was a failure to address the concerns raised around the potential impact that the PSA would have on the market and users. This study clearly shows the implications of this law, especially concerning problematic use amongst homeless populations, and the increase in harm associated with its use and acquisition on the illicit market. The study argues that without an attempt to reduce use of synthetic cannabinoids within this group the PSA will not be able to address the increased risk and harm associated with synthetic cannabinoid use. 

The findings of this study are reflective of the plethora of research evaluating the impact of the MDA on vulnerable groups. As Volteface has raised many times, draconian drug policy, underpinned by prohibitionist ideologies does little to address drug related harm. The findings and conclusions of this research support this notion, highlighting that this type of policy, with such reductive aims focused only around cutting supply chains, can often perpetuate harm if drug policy is not accompanied by progressive health and social policy to better support these vulnerable groups experiencing problematic use of synthetic cannabinoids.

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