Spice Under The Spotlight

by Calum Armstrong

The full extent of the ‘Spice’ crisis in UK prisons has been revealed by a startling new report.

Spice: The Bird Killer documents the use of ‘Spice’ through the accounts of 684 prisoners. The report was commissioned by the NHS, which was concerned about the alarming number of hospital admissions associated with the use of these drugs in prisons, and undertaken by User Voice, a charity which seeks to improve rehabilitation through collaboration.

The report provides insight gathered from focus groups, surveys and interviews with prisoners in 9 UK prisons around the country. It reveals the complex situation in which these drugs have risen to prominence and caused, and contributed to, so much harm:

Our prisons are awash with NPS and it is causing widespread and devastating damage to users, while having the effect of diverting attention away from the perceived causes of NPS’s popularity: boredom and lack of purposeful activity… People are using spice … as a coping mechanism and to self-medicate, because the reasons why they are in prison in the first place have gone untreated.

David Cameron (Source: Flickr - DFID)

David Cameron made a landmark speech on prison reform earlier this year (Source: Flickr – DFID)

The report could not be timelier. Spice has risen to become the most popular drug in our prisons, while prison overcrowding and staff shortages are at all-time highs. Spice has been widely implicated in the increase in self-harm and violence in prisons:

When asked about the harmful consequences of using spice, a majority of participants indicated addiction, debt, violence, bullying and mental health problems, with up to half indicating physical health problems and self-harm… Bullying and violence were often carried out upon users who had not paid their debts, but also upon prisoners who were ‘off their heads’ on spice – particularly vulnerable people such as the mentally ill – for purposes of entertainment or dominance.

[READ] Mapping Britain’s Drug Damage 

Spice and Black Mamba are brand names commonly used to refer to a range of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs). These formerly-legal highs are the most common novel psychoactive substances in the UK, but are particularly prevalent in our prisons. The term “spice” refers to a range of different SCRAs which were, until last month’s ban on the sale and production of all but-exempted psychoactive substances, legally sold in the UK.

(Source: Flickr - William Warby)

(Source: Flickr – William Warby)

[READ] The Psychoactive Substances Act Offers An Opportunity To Change How We Talk About Drugs

Spice has been a particularly attractive proposition for prisoners due to its easy availability, lack of drug testing, legality and its effects, particularly on the perception of time – hence the nickname ‘the bird killer’. It has also been an attractive proposition to those wishing to sell drugs, because of its availability, low wholesale price and large mark-up.

Unlike the effects of cannabis which the various drugs known as spice are intended to mimic, spice withdrawal is reported to have severe physical withdrawal symptoms on a par with heroin and other opiates. This, along with the very high incidence of psychotic episodes associated with use, demonstrates its considerably higher risk profile than cannabis.

‘It’s like jail crack, people get dependent on it.’

The insights from prisoners revealed in the report paint an intriguing, and harrowing, picture of the complex situation in which this problem has arisen. The report is deliberately limited to reporting the crisis from the point of view of those most affected, but there are clear implications for the need to re-address how we deal with drugs in prisons and prison reform more generally.

Words by George McBride. Tweets @GeorgeMcBride1

[READ] High as a Kite (Behind Bars) – Prison UK’s Alex Cavendish on the NPS epidemic in UK prisons

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