The psychoactive drug has a worrying stranglehold on some of society’s most vulnerable, but a more legally punitive approach could make things worse.
Making Spice a Class A drug is likely to make its already devastating effects on vulnerable communities worse not better, politicians have been warned.
In recent months, MPs have called on the Government to consider reclassifying the psychoactive drug to make it a Class A substance.
Known originally as a ‘legal high’, Spice – known as a New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) – was created as a legal alternative to cannabis and sold over the counter in so-called ‘head shops’. This ended in 2016, when the Government made it illegal to manufacture or supply Spice and classified it as a Class B drug.
But, the change in the law pushed the market for the drug underground, increasing its potency and resulting in aggressive targeting of rough sleepers and high use among prisoners – both looking for a ‘psychological cosh’ to escape from reality.
A highly addictive and volatile drug, Spice can lead to users becoming comatose, aggressive, having seizures, heart problems and mental health issues, and has left cash-strapped drug treatment and homelessness services feeling at a loss as to what to do to help those under its influence.
When you take a police-oriented approach to a complex health and social issue you can never address the fundamental root causes.Professor Harry Sumnall
Conservative MP Ben Bradley, who led a debate in Parliament on the issue last week, said that reclassifying Spice would be “a step in the right direction to give our police and local service the powers they need to deal effectively with users and dealers”.
The MP for Mansfield believes that, if Spice was made a Class A drug, the penalties would be greater, increasing the risk involved in supplying and dealing Spice, and therefore its price. According to this rationale, a rise in cost would then help to suppress demand. He has said the aim of reclassification would not be to criminalise vulnerable users.
But, Dr Rob Ralphs of Manchester Metropolitan University, who has researched Spice in prisons and within the homeless community, believes making it Class A could make the situation worse.
“Every time there’s been a change in the law, the next generation [of Spice] has been even stronger,” he told me.
“The big thing is why the homeless and prison populations are using it in the first place. It’s about putting money into engaging people into treatment services and trying to reduce the market. If you can reduce the market, the demand for it, then you will reduce it.”
A Government review of the 2016 law – the Psychoactive Substances Act – that made Spice illegal to manufacture and supply concluded this week that the law had achieved most of its main aims with the “open sale of NPS largely eliminated”.
“However, some areas of concern have remained or emerged since the Act, such as the supply of NPS by street dealers, the continued development of new substances, the potential displacement from NPS to other harmful substances, and continued high levels of synthetic cannabinoid use among the homeless and prison populations,” it added.
Reclassification would arguably not significantly increase the police’s powers to deal with the possession, supply and production of these substances.Policing Minister Nick Hurd
Professor Harry Sumnall, who specialises in substance use at Liverpool John Moores University, also believes that changing Spice’s classification is not the answer.
“When you take a police-oriented approach to a complex health and social issue you can never address the fundamental root causes of why some cities in the UK are experiencing harms with these substances,” he told me. “I don’t think the emergence of Spice and the concentration of harms in some users of Spice is down to the fact that the police aren’t arresting enough dealers. I don’t accept the fact that police can’t arrest people or are unlikely or unwilling to prioritise the pursuit of dealers because it’s a Class B.”
He said the harms associated with heroin and crack cocaine “haven’t been resolved by the fact that they’re Class A drugs” and that focusing on targeting dealers with harsher penalties would not lead to users being safer or healthier.
“Criminologists would argue that it actually makes the market more harmful because the risks increase, the price of drugs increase which makes the market more profitable,” he said. “The types of organised crime groups that might then enter the market because the profits and the risks are higher [changes] and when that happens violence and secondary harms increase.
“The failings in the criminal justice system, the fact that mental health service provision is in crisis, that local areas are experiencing around about a 30% cut in treatment budgets – those are the fundamental issues that need to be addressed rather than a totemic, symbolic response by making it a Class A.”
The academic also believes that if Spice was made a Class A drug, its users would be further criminalised, even if the intention is not to do this.
“The police response will predominate because the rest of the treatment services are in such a state at the moment that it might be difficult for them to respond,” he said.
Every time there’s been a change in the law, the next generation [of Spice] has been even stronger.Dr Rob Ralphs
“Looking at the history of substance use in the UK, new behaviours and new substances of concern emerge regularly. Synthetic cannabinoids are just the latest of that affecting a particular population but we know what the fundamental problems are – that we don’t have decent and well-funded mental health provision, there’s not enough public and social housing, criminal justice and secure settings are in crisis, drug treatment services are struggling.
“We know what the causes are and if we want to build a response to Spice use and the next drug of concern which will emerge in the next five or 10 years, that’s what we should be focusing on, not a piecemeal, criminal justice-led response to individual drugs in particular high-risk populations.”
The Policing Minister Nick Hurd has said that the National Crime Agency has been tasked with assessing the “threat” posed by Spice and that he has asked the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider whether the drug should be reclassified.
In a debate held in Parliament on the issue this month, he said: “We should 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 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.”