This week, MPs debated whether Spice should be reclassified as a Class A drug, in the wake of its devastating effects on those using it on the streets of towns and cities across the UK.
Deemed a “serious national problem” by Conservative MP Ben Bradley, who secured the debate in Westminster Hall, a number of MPs agreed that making the currently Class B psychoactive drug – officially called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) – a Class A substance would help police to crackdown on high-level dealers and manufacturers.
But, opposition to the proposal was also voiced, with the Government’s Policing Minister tellingly raising questions as to whether longer prison sentences for those supplying would act as a deterrent.
Reclassifying Spice: ‘A step in the right direction’
Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield – which has had a very visible issue with people on the streets using Spice – has led the calls for its reclassification and has also asked the Government to produce a national strategy to tackle the problem.
While he acknowledged that reclassification is not a “silver bullet” or a “quick fix answer”, he emphasised that it is a “step in the right direction to give our police and local service the powers they need to deal effectively with users and dealers” – a point that was later disputed, including by the Policing Minister.
Mr Bradley said that Spice needs to be made a Class A drug to be “taken seriously and prioritised by police forces” and because its effects are much similar to heroin, than cannabis.
“The current class B classification is limiting the action that local services and the police can take,” he said. “My local police are adamant that on the street, in the town centre, they have more powers to deal with things such as heroin use than they do to deal with these drugs, and obviously the sentencing powers available through the judicial system are different.
“At the moment, when the police deal with things such as Mamba and Spice in Mansfield town centre, they do not work on the basis of drugs offences, but use anti-social behaviour and criminal behaviour orders, because they do not have the opportunity, through drugs legislation, to record what we are discussing today as offences.
“The point of reclassification is not to criminalise vulnerable users, but to prevent those users from being exploited by drug dealers and to get them the help that they need.
“The challenge in many cases is that there do not seem to be significant repercussions for dealing in and manufacturing these products.
“It is not yet necessarily recognised in the literature on this subject, but there can be problems for users as bad as bleeding from the eyes and bleeding from orifices. Similarly, teeth falling out has been described by long-term users as a side-effect of these drugs, and such things are not comparable with the outcomes and side-effects of other class B drugs. It is ridiculous that these symptoms do not warrant a higher classification for these drugs.
“It is only by putting the fear of God into manufacturers and cutting off supply lines that we can hope to make a tangible impact on the ground. Tougher penalties for dealers and manufacturers would lead to increased prices for users, and more powers for the police to protect local residents.”
Mr Bradley said some users of Spice do not accept help and “it gets to the point where enough is enough” because they end up in an “endless cycle of reoffending”.
“It is far too simplistic to believe that all users will want to accept help and wrong to think that we should not act when users make life hell for innocent people and town centre businesses,” he said. “My first instinct is to protect my constituents... It is not right to let a small minority of people have such a huge impact on entire towns and the lives of thousands by turning our town centres into places where people fear to go.”
The argument against: ‘Violence will escalate’
Quoting this Volteface article, SNP MP Ronnie Cowan made the case against reclassifying Spice as a Class A drug, stating that this would end up further criminalising those using it without making them safer.
“The proposed solution would send problematic users, some with serious mental health issues, to overcrowded and understaffed prisons that are full of synthetic drugs,” he said. “I do not see how that could possibly end well.”
The MP for Inverclyde added: “Drug dealers protect their marketplace with incredible violence. If they feel threatened or their users are put under more pressure, that violence will escalate. Criminologists argue that that makes the market more harmful because of the risk increase — an increase in the price of drugs makes the market more profitable, and the more profit involved, the more the violence is used to protect it. The types of organised crime groups that might then enter the market, because the profits are higher, mean that violence and secondary harm increase.”
Mr Cowan said that life opportunities for people using Spice had to be improved and that “it is imperative that we properly fund schemes around employment, education and housing”.
Government position: ‘Any impact as a deterrent?’
Nick Hurd, Policing Minister, said it was clear that “£2 buys oblivion and a dehumanised state” when it comes to Spice.
The Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, said “the evolution of generations of such drugs is fast-moving and a major challenge” but insisted that the issue of Spice is a priority for the Government.
He called the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act – which shut down head shops selling Spice over the counter and pushed the market for the drug underground – “ground-breaking”.
“There is evidence that the Act has had a powerful effect in removing new psychoactive substances from open sale and ending the game of cat and mouse between Government and backstreet chemists,” he said. “Significantly, 300 retailers across the UK have closed down and are no longer selling the substances. Suppliers have been arrested, there has been action by the National Crime Agency (NCA) to remove psychoactive substances and, in 2016, there were 28 convictions in England and Wales, with seven people jailed under the new powers. That rose to 152 convictions in 2017, with 62 people immediately sent to custody.”
However, the Government needs to go further to tackle Spice, the minister said, pointing to the review of drugs announced by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid last month, which will include a focus on synthetic cannabinoids. He said he has asked the NCA to assess the threat from Spice, which will report back in Spring, and that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has also been asked to advise on whether Spice should be reclassified.
He said he supported the idea of a multi-agency approach, including prevention and treatment for those using Spice, because it is not simply a criminal justice issue that we can “arrest or sentence our way out of”.
Significantly, Mr Hurd added: “We should also be clear that reclassification would arguably not significantly increase the police’s powers to deal with the possession, supply and production of these substances. Instead, it would primarily increase the penalties for possession from a maximum of five years in prison to seven years, and for supply and production from a maximum of 14 years in prison to life.
“The House will have its own view on whether that change would have a material impact as a deterrent.”
Hardeep Matharu is a senior writer and researcher at Volteface. Tweets @Hardeep_Matharu