Spice drug menace worse than heroin in homeless communities in UK
Manchester,April15:When Alex first tried spice in 2014, he thought it was cannabis. The 23-year-old had been sleeping on the streets in Manchester after his mum had lost her council house. He was just looking to take his mind off his problems, but at lightning speed he became addicted, buying increasing quantities of the drug to feed his habit.
“I was waking up, buying it, smoking it, going to sleep, waking up, buying it, smoking it, going to sleep again,” he says.
Alex spent about a year addicted to spice, while he was living in tents in the city centre, before kicking the habit near the start of 2016. At the peak of his addiction, he was spending around £200 a week on the drug. “It was horrible,” he says. “Every morning I was waking up being physically sick. I was worn out and tired. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. My bones kept on aching.”
Although charities in other big UK cities report spice addiction as an issue among their homeless communities, Manchester’s problem is particularly visible. Between the city’s main train station and Piccadilly Gardens, a transport and shopping hub, it is common to see figures slumped in doorways apparently passed out after smoking the drug.
Earlier this week, Greater Manchester police released figures showing the burden the drug has placed on the city’s emergency services. The force attended 58 spice-related incidents in the city centre on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last week. There were also 23 incidents to which an ambulance was called, and 18 dispersal orders or directions to leave were issued.
Researchers estimate that 90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug. And while there is very little research into the effects of spice on the body, there are scores of reports of people dying after smoking it. “We try and keep our outreach teams away from Piccadilly Gardens,” says Yvonne Hope, operations and resources director at the Manchester-based homelessness charity Barnabus. “It’s so unsafe there now.”
The release of police figures prompted a flurry of media interest in the problem. A series of photographs of homeless spice users in Manchester city centre, some covered in vomit and being helped by emergency services, were published by local and national newspapers. Local charities were critical of the coverage, describing it as dehumanising and sensationalist.
Spice’s main attractions are that it is cheap and strong. It is thought to be imported from China in liquid form, then sprayed on an inert plant such as marshmallow before being sold to be smoked. Only the tiniest amount of the chemical is needed to have an effect.
Alex, who has been helped into supported accommodation by the homelessness charity Depaul UK, is due to start a new job next month. He realised he needed to kick the habit when his former partner refused him access to his daughter. “I went cold turkey,” he says. “I got my cousin to lock me in the back of a van and just leave me there to sweat it out.” The withdrawal symptoms include sweating, vomiting, stomach cramps and headaches, he says.
Standing outside Barnabus’s Beacon drop-in centre – which provides showers, cooked breakfasts and cups of tea to Manchester’s rough sleepers – John and Steve, 52 and 35, agree spice has largely replaced heroin, crack and even alcohol as the drug of choice.
“You can go get a fiver, buy half a gram and it’ll knock you out for a few hours,” says John, who has been homeless since 2014. “It’s better than buying a bottle of White Ace [cider].”
“I have tried heroin and it’s worse than that,” says Steve, adding that friends of his have died after taking spice. The last time he smoked a joint of spice he woke up in a hospital bed, he says. “I don’t touch the stuff any more, it doesn’t agree with me.”
Hope says there has been a rise in crime associated with the drug since it was banned in May last year, with fights breaking out among people who visit the drop-in centre. “Up until about 2015, we had people who were mostly a community and people who respected each other, and spice just seems to have killed that,” she says.
The use of spice has also reached crisis point in Britain’s prisons, helped by the fact that it does not show up in routine drugs tests. Dr Robert Ralphs, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has conducted research into the use of spice in the city, says the drug is used partly because of its ability to make hours pass in what feels like a few minutes. “People have told me they’ve used [spice] for the last two or three years, but that it seems like a couple of months,” he says.
Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, a senior lecturer in psychopharmaceutical chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, says the strength of the drug can vary wildly, which poses serious health risks. Tests on samples of the drug provided by police show the most recent batch to hit the streets in Manchester was 10 times stronger than is usual.
Sutcliffe says that although the packets look the same, they can contain a range of different cannabinoids at varying strengths. “You’re playing Russian roulette,” he adds. The chemicals found in spice in Manchester have been linked to 10 deaths in Japan.
Peter Morgan, a support worker with Depaul UK who is helping Alex in his transition back to work, says there is a need for rehabilitation programmes like those provided for heroin addicts. “Spice is clearly the strongest drug in the country right now,” he says.