‘Spice’ refers to a synthetic form of cannabis, but in reality, it’s far more dangerous and comes with terrifying side effects. The former legal high is a mix of herbs and a range of laboratory-made chemicals that produce a similar effect to THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis. THC in cannabis works by attaching itself to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The man-made chemicals in Spice do the same, but their potency can be anywhere up to 900 times stronger. The dangerous substance has been illegal in the UK since May 2016, but that has done little to remove the problem. Despite the issue, the government doesn’t seem to be doing much to tackle it.
Tragically, Spice has become increasingly popular amongst the already vulnerable homeless population, with many seeing it as a cheaper alternative to heroin, costing as little as £10 per gram. The problem first became prominent in Manchester but has now made its way across the Pennines to Leeds. A senior lecturer in criminology at the University Of Manchester was quoted last year as saying the drugs have ‘the physically addictive qualities of heroin and the psychologically addictive qualities of crack.’ The toxic and addictive drug can cause seizures, paranoid delusions, and even psychotic episodes. Those under the effects of the drug are often compared to zombies. The use of Spice has been escalating within the homeless community, but the real issue is the increase in strengths of the drug which are now in circulation.
A walk around Leeds’ main shopping areas highlights the problem, with men and women in a comatose state, seemingly unable to move. I spoke to one homeless man, not wishing to be named, who confirmed to me that the drug has been used by many in Leeds long before the ban, but the potency and addictiveness of the newer batches of the drug are what’s causing it to become a large scale issue, “Before, the ‘Spice Heads’ would smoke Spice to help them get to sleep ‘cos it’s cheaper than buying booze or weed. Now everyone is so addicted since the newer strands came out that they’re out in the streets in a right state for everyone to see.”
Looking through Leeds City Council’s Homelessness Strategy (2016-19) and Drug & Alcohol Strategy (2016-18) is disheartening, to say the least, with little mention of planned schemes to tackle the problem. It’s absolutely imperative that the government collaborates effectively with local councils and charities, as the scale of the problem suggests that it is just too large for police to effectively deal with it without ongoing support. Matthew Nice, Head of Operations at St George’s Crypt, a local Leeds charity for the homeless, said that “The use of spice is undoubtedly a serious problem, and it’s one that we are aware of. It can be difficult to handle people under the influence as well because it’s a drug which varies in its effects. It is now an illegal substance, and it is treated as such by St George’s Crypt. We have a ban on the use of all illegal drugs on the premises and a managed approach to enable us to engage with those who present intoxicated to our services.”
With those who experiment with Spice and psychoactive substances, escaping homelessness can become even more of an uphill struggle. Those addicted to the drug who wish to get clean can access The Crypt’s rehabilitation service, as Mr Nice went on to say, “Some of our clients struggle with addictions to all kinds of mind and mood-altering substances. We are committed to helping these people where we can. We run our Growing Rooms rehabilitation programme – which helps men and women to live a life free from addiction.”
Unsurprisingly, the epidemic is not limited to the homeless in Leeds, but is also a real concern for Leeds’ prison population, with the drug posing ‘particular challenges in 2016.’ One ex-inmate of HMP Leeds was quoted as saying, “I’ve seen a lot of [Spice] in there. There was a guy coming down the stairs who had been smoking Spice. He went into a fit, fell down the stairs and arrested on the floor.”
Spice abuse has become an obvious strain on public services. This poses the question, what input from local and national government alongside charities, communities and the families of those afflicted can make a difference to this problem?