Life of spice

It’s associated with seizures and psychotic episodes and many users hate it. So why is the drug spice popular?

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Mark is no stranger to getting high. He was smoking cannabis when still a child – his escape from horrendous sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a close family member. “I took it to shut my body down and make my mind go blank,” he remembers. At sixteen, he fled home and he’s been homeless ever since. After trying most other drugs, there’s one substance he’ll never touch again: spice. And, controversially, it’s legal.

Sitting in the Wellspring Centre, Stockport’s main homeless charity, the 20-year-old speaks in fragmented sentences recalling how he first got into spice – the umbrella term for a variety of synthetic cannabis products that have brand names such as Black Mamba and Clockwork Orange – and the deleterious effect it had on him.

“I’ve seen someone turn a dark shade of grey and their lips turn blue.”

“I thought it was the same as weed but it’s not,” he shudders. “It’s worse than heroin. Somebody had to stop me jumping out of the window of a flat on the eleventh floor. Black Mamba has got a picture of a snake on the packaging, so I thought I was seeing rattlesnakes coming at me – hallucinating off it. It was very, very hard to come off it.”

In May, weeks before the government announced a blanket ban on all legal highs that will come into force in April 2016, spice hit the headlines when five students from Lancaster University were rushed to hospital in a critical condition. In the US, it has been linked to scores of deaths, particularly among the homeless population, a trend that is being repeated across nothern England. Some even jokingly refer to the ambulances that are regularly called to hostels as “Mambalances”, in reference to Black Mamba. As they grapple with the problem, Big Issue North has learned that some northern councils have commissioned reports into spice use among people on low incomes – yet are withholding findings, fearful of the damage it might inflict to their town’s already benighted reputation.

Here in the Wellspring Centre, project manager Jonathan Billings has banned anyone thought to be taking legal highs. “Six months ago, we were calling an ambulance every two days,” he explains. “We’ve had a number of clients develop very serious addictions. People were passing out because they were overdosing, and they’ll jeopardise their accommodation to go and smoke it all night in car parks. I’ve seen someone turn a dark shade of grey and their lips turn blue – I was convinced they were going to stop breathing.”

Ross Mulligan – one of 340 homeless clients the facility supports – tried the cannabinoid Vertex a year ago. “I had three drags of it and it was like my brain was telling me ‘you’re not breathing,” says the 28-year-old. “They call it synthetic cannabis but I’d say it’s 100 times stronger than any cannabis you’ll find. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I tried to jump out of the window of a fourteenth floor flat.

“I know people who smoke seven or eight grams of it a day. Plus, they’re drinking on top of it. One of my mates got sectioned because he totally lost it. It messed with his head, where he was saying people were going to kill him and other mad things.”

“People were coming in here” – he gestures to the centre, teeming during lunch hour – “and flipping out on the floor and screaming. I can’t understand how it’s legal. Because if that’s legal, why isn’t cannabis legal? Spice is more dangerous – it’s similar to heroin in that people rattle off it [withdrawal] when they’ve not got it. People will go shoplifting; they’ll do whatever they can to get it.”

For now, legal highs – which claim to mimic the effects of traditional illicit drugs – are freely available in newsagents and outlets known as head shops. They are psychotropic compounds not controlled by the UK Misuse of Drugs Act. The law currently lists banned substances individually, meaning as soon as one was outlawed, manufacturers could release another with a slightly altered formula. Now the home secretary, Theresa May, has sought to end this legal game of whack-a-mole by bringing in the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which will make it a criminal offence to supply the likes of spice, as well as laughing gas (nitrous oxide) and poppers (alkyl nitrates). Yet experts warn that the bill is unenforceable and risks the potential for serious unintended consequences.

Concern has mounted over legal highs since around 2008, with the arrival of mephedrone, an ecstasy-type substance that was popular among young clubbers. But researchers claim they are now often dismissed by clubbers and students (who possess the funds to buy “classic” drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis) as “for chavs” and hold a greater appeal to vulnerable people on limited incomes.

“It’s people from more deprived backgrounds who are becoming more involved in NPS [novel psychoactive substances],” points out Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University and the UK’s foremost expert on club drug culture. “That could be because of the potency, which means you have smaller amounts. It’s cost-effective so there’s an appeal for people on limited income in terms of effects – the bang for your bucks idea. That’s particularly true of synthetic cannabinoids. They’re cheap, it’s potent. If you’re looking for a psychological cosh – and we’re seeing this especially among the homeless and people in jail – it fits the bill.”

Mark agrees. “Normally, a £10 bag of cannabis, you’ll get four or five joints out of it, but for spice, it’s a fiver for a gram and you can get 20 joints out of it.”

But to call spice a cannabis substitute is a misnomer, argues Harry Sumnall, professor in substance use at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University. “They’re not the same as cannabis and are much more potent. Some of the problems are also associated with taking too much, as the drug isn’t distributed evenly across the substance used – that is, the herbal material that cannabinoid is sprayed on – so there might be a pooling of the drug at the bottom of the packet.”

Spice is highly addictive in a way that herbal cannabis is not, with users needing a daily or even hourly fix, and it has been associated with seizures, strokes, kidney and liver damage, and acute psychotic episodes. Once they start smoking it, users report that they become “immune” to cannabis – due to the potency. “It would be a bit like going back to fine wines after you’ve been drinking Buckfast,” observes Measham. “It would take three weeks of not smoking [spice] before they could get an effect off cannabis again.

“I’ve been doing drug research for over 20 years, and it surprised me how horrible these drugs are. When users are in a state of dependency, their friends and family described them as like zombies. Their skin would go ashen grey. They would become a shadow of their former self. When they stopped, people would say: ‘I got the old me back.’”

Come April, the sweeping ban is likely to see more than 450 high street head shops face closure, yet experts fear it will not eliminate the problem of legal highs – it will merely drive demand towards illegal dealers and the dark web. “We already saw that happen with mephedrone,” says Measham. “When it was banned in 2010, casual users stopped taking it because it wasn’t so easily available, but the gay clubbers went to dealers, who filled the gap.”

The appeal for some is that these drugs are legal. Research shows that contrary to the belief that head shops are brimming with callow teens, the average age of customers tends to be those in their thirties and forties. “For professionals – people working in the police, teaching, social work – who want to take drugs but not illegal drugs, the ban will probably be the final nail in the coffin,” says Measham.

“But for people who are homeless in hostels, it’s just a matter of which drug to get off your head to. The legal status isn’t the most important factor for people who want that sense of escape.”

The government’s move is modelled on Irish legislation introduced in 2010. Although it eradicated 102 head shops overnight, it did not quell demand. A European Commission survey found that NPS use in Ireland is the highest in the EU, and that use of legal highs among 16-24 year olds had risen – from 16 per cent in 2011 to 22 per cent in 2014.

“Is the proliferation of legal highs an indictment of the war on drugs?”

And due to the near impossibility in demonstrating pharmacological causation, there have only been four prosecutions in Ireland since the law was introduced. A legal loophole means that a cannabinoid called the Joker and Clockwork Orange is still legally available because police scientists are unable to prove the drug is technically psychoactive.

At weekends in Manchester’s Gay Village you can see hordes of people merrily huffing poppers (which provide a quick head rush and can be used to enhance sexual intercourse) – sold for less than a fiver at bars. Despite being banned at Glastonbury, at most music festivals this summer the drug of choice was nitrous oxide – “hippy crack”. Both are low-risk – the Office for National Statistics reported 11 deaths related to poppers between 1993 and 2014, but we don’t know anything about the circumstances, and whether death was a result of direct toxic effects or risk-taking when intoxicated.

Similarly, in 2014 nitrous oxide – laughing gas balloons – was the second most used drug among 16-24 year olds after cannabis, yet deaths are rare considering its popularity: 12 were reported in England and Wales between 1993 and 2012, and most of the risk is associated with the way it’s taken – asphyxiation has happened when people have placed bags filled with nitrous oxide over their head or used surgical masks to self-administer. But inhaling through a balloon holds little threat. Nonetheless, these two relatively harmless drugs will be outlawed come April.

One of the weaknesses of the new bill, claims Sumnall, is that it does not differentiate between drugs on the basis of harm. “Whether you agree with our current drug laws or not, you could make a case that some spice-type drugs should be controlled, but whether nitrous oxide or certain brands of lavender oil and non-exempted food stuffs – which will also be captured by the bill – should also be controlled is harder to justify,” he says.

“It has been argued that a safety valve should be built into the bill whereby recreational products that are considered to be of relatively low risk should be exempted, so that people who want to get high can do so in a relatively safer way, without resorting to traditional illegal drugs or alcohol – but this has been rejected by the government.”

Although the new bill does not make possession a criminal offence, a user could face seven years in prison for “supply and importation” after buying small amounts of psychoactive drugs for friends who have purchased the substance as a group. At the Wellspring Centre, Pete – homeless after serving time in Strangeways – laughs at the notion. “The irony is there’s more legal highs in jail than there is on the streets!” scoffs the 48-year-old. Indeed, in July, a Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) report found legal highs – often undetectable in tests – were a factor in at least 19 prisoner deaths between 2012 and 2014.

“You can always see the telltale signs of people who are addicted,” says Pete. “They wanted to keep themselves in their cells, locked up. They don’t want to come out.”

At 14, Mark went to prison for the first time. It was then he became heavily involved in smoking spice. “I turned to it because I couldn’t cope. It was very easy to get in – stuck down envelopes and stuff like that. I was smoking it from 12 dinner time to midnight every day.”

Are the proliferation of legal highs an indictment of the war on drugs? By tweaking the formula, it seems the makers of spice are only interested in pursuing legality rather than creating a drug people will actually enjoy. Prohibition has left users smoking the cannabis equivalent of moonshine – a dubious concoction of chemicals – that are at best substandard, at worst dangerous. Even John W Huffman – the organic chemist credited with inventing spice at Clemson University, South Carolina – has called for marijuana to be legalised in order to curb demand, claiming that anyone who ingests the synthetic equivalent recreationally is “foolish” and playing “Russian roulette”.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that spice is largely absent in the Netherlands, alongside US states Colorado and California, where marijuana is legal to varying degrees.

“If you were to regulate and properly control the regular cannabis market, you would quickly see the disappearance – or at least significant lessening of use of – synthetic cannabinoids like spice,” says Edward Fox, policy and communications manager at drugs charity Release.

“A good example is the Netherlands, which has the coffee shop model. They make it available, people know what they’re buying, there’s good education on how to use it safely, so people don’t feel the need to explore alternatives like spice.”

In Stockport, Pete says, “everybody is walking around off their faces on legal highs”. A ten minute stroll from the Wellspring Centre and a cluster of teens are smoking spice. One is 13, another is 14. The youngest is 11. Wrapped up in shiny, colourful bags not dissimilar to sweet packets, emblazoned with pictures of cartoon characters, it’s easy to see why they might look innocuous to kids. But will any change in law help them, or the vulnerable homeless, who use them as a passport to somewhere else?

“For many people who experience problems with drugs, substances on their own aren’t the biggest concern,” says Sumnall. “It’s what else is happening in that person’s life – for example, experiences of poverty and lack of opportunity, family breakdown, mental ill health and risk taking. We should judge the success of drug laws on how they lead to wide ranging improvements in people’s lives.”

Besides, there is the question over whether it’s patronising to treat the homeless universally as victims and perhaps it’s taboo to acknowledge that some people actually like it. Jeremy Bourn, 53, says he’s capable of making his own rational decisions. Every day, he smokes between three and six grams of spice – and is evangelical about it.

“It’s easy to blame the new devil,” he shrugs. “You read reports from America that spice is ‘killing off’ the homeless – but they don’t take into account factors such as alcoholism or lack of nutrition. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, it’s knocked the bottom out of the weed market round here. I can sit on a bench in town and roll up a one-skinner. I don’t see what the harm is – there’s nothing that the police can do.

“Even when the repressive ban comes into force, they can’t ban the internet.”

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