Manchester keeps spice users safer

Harm reduction approach protects drug users

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A partnership between Greater Manchester Police and Manchester Metropolitan University is working to safeguard spice and other street drug users by taking a harm reduction approach.

The two institutions have signed an intelligence-sharing agreement that allows police to use the university’s facilities to see what is in the drugs they have seized using a specialist machine that can analyse substances within an hour.

The information allows police to assess whether the drugs could be particularly dangerous, meaning they can issue warnings to users and build an accurate picture of the drugs landscape across Greater Manchester.

Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, senior lecturer in psychopharmaceutical chemistry and director of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Drug Analysis and Knowledge Exchange research group, also known as MANDRAKE, spoke at a public lecture recently about the work the partnership has achieved so far.

Seized drugs give insight

Sutcliffe explained how the research unit was able to analyse samples of drugs seized at this year’s Parklife and Manchester Pride events, giving them insight into the demographic of recreational drug users and the types of drugs they are taking.

The unit has also been integral in analysing different strains of the street drug spice, and last year the information led to the release of a pamphlet advising users about how to take the drug, and what to do in the event of an overdose.

GMP officer Andy Costello works alongside MANDRAKE. Speaking at the lecture organised by Manchester University, Costello described how the rise of spice is the biggest issue he has had to face in his career.

Costello, who works in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, has followed the drug closely after first noticing “brightly coloured packages” littered around the street in 2013, when the drug could be bought legally and was sold as synthetic cannabis by head shops.

Since then the drug has been banned, along with all new psychoactive substances. But despite prohibition spice use has grown massively among rough sleeping communities across the country as well as in prisons.

Costello said: “The Psychoactive Substances Act came into force on 26 May 2016. We closed the head shops down and there was a period when we didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought, is that it? Have we done it?

“No. We found it came out and entrenched itself in the rough sleeping populations, and it really had a profound effect. I was seeing that the people who were using heroin and crack were beginning to use spice, and when we looked at the chemical make-up and how it was made we realised it was nothing like cannabis. Suddenly it was visible, and users were showing signs of withdrawal much akin to heroin.”

“Prohibition doesn’t work”

Costello told the lecture how the word “zombie”, often used to describe spice users in the press, dehumanises some of the people he has known for more than 10 years working on the beat and who are suffering with addiction problems.

The partnership aims to take a more holistic approach to reduce harm to users but GMP has to work within legislation – the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act means possession is a criminal offence.

Joanna Neill, Manchester University professor of psychopharmacology, organised the event. She favours regulation of street drugs and a complete overhaul of current drug laws, and says the approach taken by Costello and Sutcliffe should be extended to support drug users across the country.

Neill said: “Prohibition does not work. People still use drugs very widely, and they should be kept safe. The work that MANDRAKE and GMP are doing is all about harm reduction.

She added: “The government needs to sit up and lend its support to brilliant projects such as this, which offer a tangible solution to one of our country’s biggest problems”.

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