The “zombie plague” of Spice users blighting UK cities has been caused by factors that were “utterly predictable” and exactly what critics of the legal highs ban warned about, the former drugs tsar has told The Independent.
His criticism came as Manchester’s Crime Commissioner admitted to The Independent that it had become far harder for police to stop the sale of potentially deadly strains of Spice because instead of simply talking to head shop owners, they had to disrupt criminal drug dealing operations.
Tony Lloyd also called on Home Secretary Amber Rudd to visit Manchester to see for herself how police, ambulance and health services were now “really stretched” by a Spice problem that had grown far worse since the legal highs ban started.
“It’s exactly what I warned about,” said Prof Nutt, who is now professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London. “The whole thing was utterly predictable. The trade has passed from the head shops to the street dealers – and on the black market people don’t care whether their ‘customers’ live or die.
“It is incredibly frustrating, but the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have completely closed their minds to the reality of what is going on – and have done for a very long time.
“They think the only response is banning substances. It’s all heads in the sand, ‘drugs are bad, our policies are working’. They will never admit they got it wrong – but they have got it wrong.”
Prof Nutt was speaking after a reporter for the Manchester Evening News (MEN) described the Piccadilly Gardens area of the city as having been turned into “hell on earth” by “pale, wasted figures caught in a Spice nightmare”.
Although Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, and other so-called ‘legal highs’ were banned by the Government under the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) in May 2016, the reporter described scenes of open “destitution” not seen in Manchester since the 1980s and 1990s.
As shoppers went about their daily business, users of Spice – described by one addict as “like cannabis with the effect of heroin” - could be seen frozen in doorways, slumped on the floor, and in one case turning blue from the effects of a drug capable of inducing seizures and psychotic episodes.
Dozens of ambulances, the MEN reported, were being called to the area every day. Teenage pushers, the journalist wrote, were involved in “blatant drug dealing yards away from the children’s playground”.
With studies showing that 90 per cent of rough sleepers in Manchester city centre were using Spice, one homelessness worker warned: “Things are reaching fever pitch … It’s a f***ing disaster zone.”
But in May, four days before the legal highs ban came into force, Prof Nutt had – with the backing of other critics – warned that the “nonsense legislation” would simply close the remaining head shops and force vulnerable addicts like homeless users into the arms of street dealers.
“The only people who will benefit,” Professor Nutt had told The Independent, “Will be the [street] drug dealers. They will have a monopoly.”
Now in what seems close to being an echo of that warning, Manchester city centre Inspector Phil Spurgeon has told the MEN: “I’m not being judgemental about the legislation, but the reality with the Psychoactive Substances Act is that it has shifted supply onto the streets.”
The senior police officer added: “The product was probably more consistent in the head shops. Now it’s more varied, the make-up is constantly changing.
“That’s why we’re seeing people collapsing, as the drug becomes more potent.”
This appeared similar to what Prof Nutt had warned about in May when he said: “It will be a scary market. There will be much less safety. There will be no quality control – people won’t stop using legal highs, they will just use more dangerous ones.
“Deaths will increase.”
World's 10 deadliest street drugs
World's 10 deadliest street drugs
1/10 10. Purple Drank
One of the more unusual drugs around at the moment, purple drank was popularised in 90s hip hop culture, with the likes of Jay Z and Big Moe all mentioning it in their songs. It is a concoction of soda water, sweets and cold medicine, and is drunk due to cold medicines high codeine content, which gives the user a woozy feeling. However it can also cause respiratory issues and heart failure
2/10 9. Scopolamine
Scopolamine is a derivative from the nightshade plant found in the Northern Indian region of South America (Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela). It is generally found in a refined powder form, but can also be found as a tea. The drug is more often used by criminals due its high toxicity level (one gram is believed to be able to kill up to 20 people) making it a strong poison. However, it is also believed that the drug is blown into the faces of unexpecting victims, later causing them to lose all sense of self-control and becoming incapable of forming memories during the time they are under the influence of the drug. This tactic has reportedly been used by gangs in Colombia where there have been reports of people using scopolamine as way to convince victims to rob their own homes
3/10 8. Heroin
Founded in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright, heroin is one of the world’s oldest drugs. Originally it was prescribed as a strong painkiller used to treat chronic pain and physical trauma. However in 1971 it was made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then it has become one of the most destructive substances in the world, tearing apart communities and destroying families. The side effects of heroin include inflammation of the gums, cold sweats, a weak immune system, muscular weakness and insomnia. It can also damage blood vessels which can later cause gangrene if left untreated
4/10 7. Crack cocaine
Crack cocaine first came about in the 1980’s when cocaine became a widespread commodity within the drug trafficking world. Originally cocaine would have attracted a high price tag due to its rarity and difficulty to produce, but once it became more widespread the price dropped significantly. This resulted in drug dealers forming their cocaine into rock like shapes by using baking soda as a way of distilling the powder down into rock form. People were doing this because it allowed for them to sell cocaine at a lower quantity and to a higher number of people. The side effects of crack cocaine include liver, kidney and lung damage, as well as permanent damage to blood vessels, which can often lead to heart attacks, strokes, and ultimately death
5/10 6. Crystal meth
Not just famous because of a certain Walter H White, but also because it is one of the most destructive drugs in the world. First developed in 1887, it became widely used during the Second World War when both sides would give it to their troops to keep them awake. It is also believed that the Japanese gave it to their Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. After the war crystal meth was prescribed as a diet aid and remained legal until the 1970s. Since then it has fallen into the hands of Mexican gangs and has become a worldwide phenomenon, spreading throughout Europe and Asia. The effects of crystal meth are devastating. In the short-term users will become sleep depraved and anxious, and in the long-term it will cause their flesh to sink, as well as brain damage and damage of the blood vessels
6/10 5. AH-7921
AH-7921 is a synthetic opioid that was previously available to legally purchase online from vendors until it became a Class A in January 2015. The drug is believed to have 80% of the potency of morphine, and became known as the ‘legal heroin’. While there has only been one death related to AH-7921 in the UK, it is believed to be highly dangerous and capable of causing respiratory arrest and gangrene
7/10 4. Flakka
Flakka is a stimulant with a similar chemical make-up to the amphetamine-like drug found in bath salts. While the drug was originally marketed as a legal high alternative to ecstasy, the effects are significantly different. The user will feel an elevated heart rate, enhanced emotions, and, if enough is digested, strong hallucinations. The drug can cause permanent psychological damage due to it affecting the mood regulating neurons that keep the mind’s serotonin and dopamine in check, as well as possibly causing heart failure
8/10 3. Bath salts
Bath salts are a synthetic crystalline drug that is prevalent in the US. While they may sound harmless, they certainly aren’t the sort of salts you drop into a warm bath when having a relaxing night in, they are most similar to mephedrone, and have recently been featured throughout social media due to the ‘zombification’ of its. The name comes from the fact that the drug was originally sold online, and widely disguised as bath salts. The side effects include unusual psychiatric behaviour, psychosis, panic attacks and violent behaviour, as well as the possibility of a heart attack and an elevated body temperature
9/10 2. Whoonga
Whoonga is a combination of antiretroviral drugs, used to treat HIV, and various cutting agents such as detergents and poisons. The drug is widely available in South Africa due to South Africa’s high rate of HIV sufferers, and is believed to be popular due to how cheap it is when compared to prescribed antiretrovirals. The drug is highly addictive and can cause major health issues such as internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and ultimately death
10/10 1. Krokodil
Krokodil is Russia’s secret addiction. It is believed that over one million Russians are addicted to the drug. Users of krokodil are attracted to the drug due to its low price; it is sold at £20 a gram while heroin is sold for £60. However, krokodil is considered more dangerous than heroin because it is often homemade, with ingredients including painkillers, iodine, lighter fluid and industrial cleaning agents. This chemical make-up makes the drug highly dangerous and likely to cause gangrene, and eventually rotting of the flesh
The fear of users dying has now been raised by Tony Lloyd, Greater Manchester’s interim mayor and its Police and Crime Commissioner, who admitted the legal highs ban had made it harder for police to intercept the most dangerous batches of Spice – a drug whose precise chemical formula is constantly being tweaked by black market chemists, adding to the unpredictability of its effects.
He told The Independent: “There were those who warned that moving from a regulated supply to an unregulated one would have anarchic consequences.
“When Spice was sold legally through shops, if there was a difficult batch coming through, causing extreme problems, it would be possible for police to deal with it via the shops. Now it is massively more complicated – the police have to launch an undercover operation [against criminals].”
Adding that some users had already experienced “very, very near death experiences, where they’ve essentially been dead and have been brought around,” Mr Lloyd said: “We should be very worried.”
He stopped short of an outright condemnation of the ban, but admitted that it was only since its introduction that Manchester had experienced such extreme problems.
He said: “I wasn’t aware of what we are now seeing until fairly recently – we are talking about post-ban, in recent weeks and months.
“But whether the upsurge could have happened anyway [without the ban], it’s difficult to say.”
Calling on Ms Rudd to visit Manchester to see for herself the true scale of the city’s Spice problem, he added: “It would be a start for the Home Secretary to come up to Manchester to talk to those on the ground and get some proper view of the impact this is having on local resources.
“It’s not just the police. As much as anyone else, the ambulance and health services are being really stretched by the impact of Spice.”
Nor is Manchester the only city where fears have been raised about how the legal highs ban has led to head shops being replaced by more ruthless criminal street dealers.
In December, one user in Bradford, West Yorkshire, told The Independent that drugs like Spice could now be ordered “like a takeaway”. Instead of having to travel to get their supplies from a head shop in a suburb three miles outside the city centre, users could just call up a delivery from one of the payphones which now had the numbers of criminal dealers carved into them.
In London, people working with homeless addicts were hearing of pushers offering cut-price deals where instead of selling by weight, they were dishing out Spice according to however much money was in the homeless user’s pockets.
Such unscrupulous street dealer tactics, it was feared, would spread the use of the highly addictive drugs among the homeless and the vulnerable, who increasingly now include ex-prisoners who have become addicted after being exposed to widespread Spice use in jail.
In Newcastle, one drugs worker said the ban had caused the city’s street dealers to raise the price of legal highs from £10 a gramme to £15 or £20. But that, he said, had just led to some homeless addicts committing more crime to fund their habit.
In other areas, including Blackpool, there have been reports of Spice users looking like ‘zombies’ in popular city centre locations in broad daylight.
Prof Nutt, who was sacked by the Labour government in 2009 a day after claiming ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, said more useful steps might be decriminalising cannabis to steer people away from more harmful drugs, and adopting the Portugese decriminalisation model.
“In Portugal,” he said, “They have saved lives, saved money and prison space by decriminalising possession [in 2001] and treating it as a health issue. There, if you are caught with heroin, people talk to you about why you are taking it: addicts are treated, sent to dissuasion clinics.
“It works, but we would never do it, because that would be seen as ‘soft on drugs’.”
He added that instead, in December synthetic cannabinoids including Spice were made class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, meaning users could be punished with up to five years in prison for possession.
Previously, under the PSA, possession had only been punishable if the user was in prison. Outside of custodial institutions, the legal highs ban had targeted only suppliers.
Defending current policy, Sarah Newton, the Minister for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism, said: “Drugs can devastate lives and communities; we will not tolerate them.
“That is why we passed the Act to outlaw so-called 'legal highs' and [later] introduced even tougher controls for synthetic cannabinoids.
"We are also tackling the harms caused by illegal drugs. Our Drug Strategy, to be published shortly, will build on the work already undertaken to prevent drug use in our communities and help dependent individuals, including homeless people and those in prisons.”
A Home Office spokesman added: “Almost 500 people were arrested in the first six months after the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force. In the same period 332 shops across the UK stopped selling the substances. Action by the National Crime Agency has also resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances being sold by UK based websites.
“This Government has protected police funding since the 2015 Spending Review and police forces will continue to have the resources they need.”Reuse content