Racked by spice

Spice use around Manchester city centre has become notorious enough to make national headlines. Did making it illegal fuel the problem?

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A man staggers on to a tram at Piccadilly Gardens. Bobbing and weaving through the carriage, the twenty-something suddenly freezes in a catatonic state, while stood bolt upright. “He’s a spicehead,” says the conductor to his colleague. “You see it all the time – it’s like Manchester’s version of the Mannequin Challenge.”

This happened recently, nearly two years after I first reported on spice – an umbrella term or brand for synthetic cannabinoid drugs – when it was legal. Back then the devastation it wrought was met with incredulity, now it has become the new normal. That the Metrolink worker could joke about it despite the user’s state shows how city has become inured towards spice’s effects. It is no longer a shock, merely
a perverse punchline.

“These aren’t party drugs. Nobody takes it for fun. Users want to turn their brain off.”

Even two years ago, the scale of the problem was becoming apparent. Users frequently said spice was “worse than heroin”, responsible for seizures, psychotic episodes and, in some cases, death. One spoke of how the hallucinations were so powerful he tried to hurl himself off the eleventh floor of a tower block. Experts predicted the then-impending Psychoactive Substances Act – which came into force on 26 May last year, banning legal highs such as spice – would worsen the problem by ceding control to criminal gangs that were not subject to any of the scrutiny high street head shops faced, allowing them to target and exploit society’s most vulnerable.

It came to pass. Charities estimate the majority of Manchester’s street homeless population are now addicted to spice. In broad daylight, people are off their faces all over Piccadilly Gardens. “Spicechester” graffiti is daubed on walls. Footage of users in a frozen state has provoked national media outrage, with the area compared to The Walking Dead and denounced as “dystopian” in the Manchester Evening News.

“Within three minutes of walking down Piccadilly Approach you’ll be offered spice,” says Julie Boyle from the homelessness charity Lifeshare. She shows a translucent poly bag – sold with spice in it for £5-£10 per gram – emblazoned with an image of Bob Marley.

“Bob Marley would be turning in his grave,” she shudders. “It’s called a cannabis substitute but it’s nothing like that. Entrenched street homeless people who’ve been habitually heroin or crack users for 20 years turned to spice because it’s cheap, and they say it’s harder for them to get off that than heroin.

“These people are resilient. For them to say it’s worse shows how bad it is.”

Research is so scarce that outreach workers talk of being “six months behind” the fight against spice. “We’re reliant on anecdotal evidence,” says Boyle. “We’ve started giving people a Mars Bar and Lucozade, because we’ve found it brings people round a bit.”

On the high-profile weekend of 7-9 April, Greater Manchester Police officers were called to 58 incidents related to spice. It felt like a tipping point.

“We know a different strain of spice has entered the city by how people are reacting,” notes Neil Cornthwaite, head of operations at Manchester-based homeless charity Barnabus. “One month it’s fits and vomiting, the next it’s causing people to be violent, the next they might be passed out while stood up.”

You can see it all too vividly in Piccadilly Gardens, where there’s a high concentration of rough sleepers reliant on spice as a psychological cosh. Many originally turned to the drug to help them sleep, such as Shaun*, 24.

“I started having a spliff at night so I wasn’t on high alert for someone who might abuse or attack me,” he says. “I took it to make my mind go blank and knock me out. But then you wake up and rattle [withdraw] off it, so you take more. I used to get 30 spliffs out of a gram, but now I’m on eight grams a day. I wish I could go back to smoking skunk – but it doesn’t even touch the sides now.”

Leanne*, who’s been on the streets for 16 years and kicked heroin, says: “I wouldn’t touch the stuff. I’d rather go back on the gear. I’ve seen four ambulances called today.

“People are spiking each other with it to see what it does. One of my mates had her spliff spiked with it – and ended up crawling around town half naked. It sends people’s mental health off the charts. You see people go very depressed, and their face starts rocking. They have hollow eyes. It paralyses their jaw, like Bell’s Palsy.

“And it’s making it worse for people like me. People think you don’t need money for a bed for the night – you’re just going to use it to buy spice.”

Boyle believes this is a problem of “epidemic proportions that has never been seen before and has affected and scarred the homeless community”.

She says some of the charity’s clients have been sexually assaulted under the influence, with one contracting HIV, and forced into sex work to continue to fund their habit.

“We have witnessed first hand the rapid decline in individuals who become addicted to these substances, turning the most gentle and peaceful people violent, aggressive and dangerous.”

Making spice illegal has broken up friendship groups among homeless people. “You’ve got a group of people who were all previously smoking spice together. It was available and cheap – nobody had it when the other didn’t. We had people who set the date of the ban as their detox date, but they’ve also stockpiled spice and are now selling it to the people they used to smoke it with. That causes conflict.

“We’ve got clients sending other clients out begging to get the money for their spice. It’s destroyed circles of friends.”

Dr Rob Ralphs, senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has conducted extensive research into spice use among marginalised people, agrees. “If people are withdrawing or people want to get more spice, it’s bound to lead to more conflict. Homeless people are stealing from each other and robbing each other’s stuff from tents just to get spice.”

The point is echoed by Cornthwaite. “Before, we were calling ambulances a lot for fits and sickness,” he says. “Once it became illegal, we found ourselves calling the police more because it turned more towards violence and people stealing off each other to get it.”

Before being made illegal, spice traded under a variety of brand names, including Vertex, The Joker, Black Mamba (or Mambalance, slang for an ambulance called to deal with its deleterious effects). It was sold in head shops in garishly colourful, cartoonish packets with an alphabet soup of chemical compounds printed on the back. Now it’s known colloquially only as spice and prison spice – allegedly weaker. Rough sleepers talk of prison spice being cheaper too. “You can sit down begging for half an hour and get a fiver to buy it,” claims one.

Prohibition proved enough to deter recreational purchasers of legal highs such as mephedrone but the already established demand for spice was too lucrative to disappear. Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, lecturer in psychopharmaceutical chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, says: “It was too much of a license to print money. You can get 50 bags from one gram of cannabinoid [spice’s active ingredient], bought for £5 off the internet before the ban, selling it for £5 a bag.”

Prohibition brings further problems. As there are no printed contents, it’s harder for paramedics and support workers to Google to see what somebody has ingested. “Spice was always unpredictable,” says Cornthwaite. “But it’s even more unpredictable now.”

Ralphs adds: “With the Home Office Forensic Early Warning System, they’d do test purchases from head shops. Over the last five years, 95 per cent of what was listed on the packaging was what it actually contained. But now that isn’t happening – everybody is in the dark.”

Sutcliffe has been working with GMP to analyse samples seized from the streets – some of which contained chemicals linked to 10 deaths in Japan. Of the eight batches studied, the first two contained a chemical called AMB FUBINACA – linked to “zombie-like” behaviour in Brooklyn, New York, in July 2016. “Our analysis indicates a wide variation in both the psychoactive chemicals present and their concentration within these samples. Users are potentially playing Russian roulette with each bag of spice.”

During the flurry of “frozen spice” incidents, outreach workers saw users statue-like while criminals rooted through their pockets without them flinching. “Even though that catatonic state looks terrifying, it’s temporary,” notes Ralphs. “Within 10-15 minutes, they walk off. Within half an hour, they’ll often be smoking again. It’s more of a concern when you see people fitting and smashing their head against a kerbstone or going into cardiac arrest.”

If it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to take a drug that produces that effect, spice’s widespread use in prisons provides a clue. It’s known as birdkiller, because it kills time, and can fetch up to £40 per gram, says Boyle – “easy money”.

With the huge rise in rough sleeping in Manchester, the dynamics have transferred to Piccadilly Gardens. There is little research about spice use in other cities and towns but Sutcliffe says: “This is happening all over the country, but it’s just slightly more off the beaten track and not in plain sight.

“I would commend Manchester Council, GMP, public health bodies and other agencies that are trying to be proactive and tackle it. The city could have ignored this issue – but it hasn’t.”

Yet spice is so destructive that many homeless hostels will not accept people they suspect to have smoked it. This creates a vicious circle: homeless users turn to the substance to blot out the harsh reality of rough sleeping, but it prevents them securing a bed for the night – resulting in them smoking more.

Boyle emphasises the need to tackle the root cause. “What’s going on in your life or head that makes you want to be so removed from reality? These aren’t party drugs. Nobody takes spice for fun. You’ve got to deal with the issues that makes somebody want to turn their brain off.

“We’ve seen people released from prison and bailed to a tent; people who’ve come out of Strangeways have been released onto the street. It’s setting people up to fail.”

Part of spice’s appeal seems to be that it is odourless and hard to detect. “If you’re looking at the prison system, a lot of people started using heroin in prison 10 years ago because cannabis stayed in their system for a month and heroin would pass through in 24-48 hours,” says Ralphs. “We’ve seen that same driver for spice – its popularity started because it didn’t show up in drug tests.

“We’ve suggested they should get rid of mandatory drug tests. Twenty years ago, most people would have been using cannabis in prison. They’ve introduced a whole new group of people to heroin and are now churning out spice users.”

* Names have been changed 

Read the previous feature on Spice use here

Along the spice route

How does spice end up in the hands of Shaun, who smokes eight grams of it a day in Manchester?

Information is scarce – and cloaked in the same rumours that fuelled scare stories claiming spice was being laced with crack or heroin to get people addicted. In fact Manchester’s Metropolitan University testing showed that was not true. But people are still buying the synthetic cannabinoids (SCRA) that make up spice from cryptomarkets – secret online marketplaces – or directly from Chinese manufacturers. In the latter case that can mean individual chemists doing a foreigner or more conventional exports with the help of bribed customs officers turning a blind eye.

“I’ve not heard anything to suggest that SCRA are being synthesised or manufactured in the UK,” says Harry Sumnall, professor in substance use at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University. “What is probably happening is that spice products are being assembled or packaged here – people buying the SCRA powders, dissolving them in solvents and then spraying them onto herbal substrates. It’s relatively easy to do.”

The source chemicals are easy to import with the right contacts and it is simply not possible for customs officers to screen all packages arriving at sorting offices.

“Without intelligence, packages containing SCRA look just look any other international post item, especially if they’re coming in via a third country to reduce suspicion,” adds Sumnall.

“As far as I’m aware the distribution and sale of SCRA is a relatively small and localised , meaning that criminal enterprises involved in the cannabis and heroin trade, for example, are not distributing it.

“On a local level, dealers and criminal gangs might be selling these drugs together, but use isn’t widespread enough to suggest involvement of formal criminal networks.”

In Manchester, users suggest that supply is split in the city centre between groups of dealers. Those who control Piccadilly Gardens are said to hail from south Manchester, while those dealers operating from Deansgate and Cathedral Gardens come from north Manchester. Additionally, there is claimed to be a Polish network that doesn’t have a patch. People will phone them up and they deliver. Arrests made so far appear to correspond to this anecdotal data.

“Around Piccadilly Gardens, they’re selling cannabis and spice, whereas the Eastern European dealers sell just spice,” explains Ralphs, adding that most of the street dealers are aged 15 to 20 but are probably linked to older people involved in manufacturing it from imported SCRA. A lot of people involved in the skunk market moved to spice.”

In Manchester, people appear to be importing SCRA in liquid form from China, then buying marshmallow plant – easily available online or from Chinese supermarkets.

“Previously it would be sprayed onto the plant matter but now we’re hearing that it’s being soaked, typically in a bath tub,” says Ralphs. “Information is easily available online detailing how to make it – you don’t need a chemistry degree.”

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