Prisoners are turning to the over-the-counter medication, Buscopan, to get high in jails across England and Wales. The pills release a potent hallucinogenic, scopolamine, when crushed and smoked on foil, making them a popular way to pass the long hours of lock up.
With many institutions remaining on restrictive Covid regimes, a significant number of inmates remain confined to their cells for more than 22 hours a day, while their access to rehabilitation, family visits and exercise is limited. It’s no surprise – therefore – that some of these people are seeking escapism from the monotony and trauma of daily life.
Buscopan’s often touted as a relief for stomach cramps stemming from Irritable Bowel Syndrome and period pains. In prisons, it’s given to people withdrawing from heroin to reduce abdominal pain, along with other prescription medication.
While investigating this trend, Volteface spoke to 11 incarcerated people from nine prisons, via WhatsApp, all of whom reported that Buscopan is prevalent where they’re locked up. Some inmates buy the pharmaceutical – at around £5.50 for 20 pills – from the institution’s canteen (shop), while others obtain it from the healthcare service.
Volteface spoke to a 37-year-old prisoner at HMP Channings Wood in Devon, a Category C prison holding around 700 men. The man, who is in his thirteenth year of imprisonment, says, “People are smoking Buscopan on foil, like heroin. Even though you can buy the pills at regular pharmacies, it’s very intense when smoked. Men are having proper hallucinations and don’t know where they are…”
“You can tell Buscopan is a really different high to spice, even if you haven’t tried it. The effects of smoking Buscopan last for about ten hours, whereas the high peaks at around 30 minutes for spice. And Buscopan doesn’t make you like a zombie either,” he observes.
The Channings Wood inmate explains, “Last night, my padmate was dismantling things and rambling really loudly for hours. He took apart the TV and phone aerial, then tried to re-attach them with what he said was invisible glue. He didn’t know what he was doing. And there was another lad yesterday who spent hours happily talking to a small Buddha statue in his cell.”
Prisoners across England and Wales offer similar observations, with a 48-year-old who was recently released from HMP Coldingley – a Category C mens’ jail in Surrey – saying, “There weren’t toilets in the cells, so you had to press a bell when you needed to go. One time, there was a lad wandering around the landing in the middle of the night. He thought he was at the beach… and the officer couldn’t get him back into his cell for 20 minutes, as he kept ambling away.”
Nobody cited an incident whereby someone had become angry after using Buscopan. The ex-Coldingley resident remarks that the midnight wanderer seemed “happy enough”. And similarly, the 37-year-old man at HMP Channings Wood says, “Even the most violent of people seem to chill out after taking it.”
It’s easy to understand why people may be discouraged from smuggling synthetic cannabinoids into prisons, as the government has spent £300,000 – since 2021 – training prison dogs to detect new and emerging strains of spice, reportedly as part of efforts to “tackle violence and disorder behind bars”.
Illegal drugs are typically more expensive in prison than the outside world. For example, a gram of a synthetic cannabinoid can cost as little as £2 on the street but sells for up to £200 in jail. The high retail price of more conventional illicit substances makes pills such as Buscopan – at around 28 pence each – an appealing option in the confines of a prison wing.
There remains a stigma around spice, even in a prison setting. Buscopan use is prevalent in women’s jails where synthetic cannabinoids are typically less popular. And an increasing number of women continue to use it – for its psychoactive effects – when released into the community, the justice charity Clinks reports.
A woman in her twenties, who was released from HMP Eastwood Park in June 2022, shares, “I found a girl collapsed under her sink, dribbling, after smoking Buscopan. It was really upsetting to see her like it. She had been shouting earlier in the day, as she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get out [of the prison] to walk to her village shop. Obviously, she had no idea where she was or what she was doing.”
“There was another time when I was at Low Newton, the women’s prison in Northumberland, where a girl was running around in just her flip flops and sunglasses, but no clothes, after smoking Buscopan. It’s going on all over the place,” she comments.
In HMP Newhall, healthcare workers limit the availability of Buscopan and Imodium, a female former prisoner recalls. The latter is typically used in 2 mg doses to treat diarrhea, but it’s an opioid with potent effects when consumed in high quantities. You’d need to swallow 100 mg – or 50 pills – to get a euphoric high, which comes with a risk of heart damage, experts note.
There has been at least one death by drug poisoning, following the consumption of Buscopan: a 41-year-old man died in prison after smoking the drug, while prescribed a variety of mental health medication. Similarly, 21 adults experienced acute poisoning from drinking Buscopan in a tea, while another two adults became ill after consuming a microwaved form of the drug.
The fact that vulnerable people are finding a way to get high in even the most secure of environments highlights the need for a drug policy addressing the root causes of this behaviour. After all, it’s impossible to rid the world of every psychoactive substance.
It’s common sense that individuals are much less likely to want to escape from reality when there’s something meaningful to do, whether it’s physical exercise or academic classes. But without significant investment in prison education, mental healthcare and staffing, this depressing and unhealthy situation is unlikely to change.
Rebecca Tidy is a freelance journalist specialising in criminal justice and drugs. Prior to this, she spent a decade researching policing and drug policy at Plymouth University and the University of Exeter. Tweets @DrRebeccaTidy