In recent days, the media has been discussing a ‘zombie plague’ in our cities. Users of the synthetic cannabinoid drug known as Spice can become paralytically intoxicated and may be a danger to themselves and others through erratic and sometimes violent behaviour. It has also been said to have the physically and psychologically addictive properties of heroin and crack. It is developing into a crisis for our emergency services. Yet, paradoxically, this new outbreak can be directly linked to further restrictions on the harmful drug.
Spice is a drug so unpleasant that there is no real commercial market for it. A market in prisons only arose after mandatory urine testing was introduced for herbal cannabis in 2005. Spice, while it affects the same receptors in the brain, does not show up in usual THC drug tests, and is mostly odourless, even when smoked. Prisoners became addicted and it soon spread to homeless communities, popular for its low price and potent strength. As a result, our friends at Volteface found that in the first four months of 2016, around 22% of homeless people in Westminster were using spice, up from roughly zero two years earlier. The numbers are unlikely to have improved since then.
The drug’s status as a ‘legal high’ ended in 2009, but similar substances continued to be sold online and over the counter in head shops until the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced in 2016. This has had the effect of pushing the supply further underground; outlawing the head shops that had previously attempted to ensure a degree of quality control and reliability to their customers, while also increasing the likelihood of violence and abuse used by dealers against vulnerable users.
This myopic belief by some in the media and government that the police are capable of stopping people using drugs, despite many decades worth of evidence to the contrary, has always and will continue to lead to more harm. The very existence of spice is the result of the prohibition of cannabis, just as hooch and moonshine were the result of alcohol prohibition in 1920s America.
It is clear that the UK should legalise cannabis and create a regulated market; to take away the revenue streams that fund the criminal gangs who supply it and to reduce the harm to users from cannabis produced by unscrupulous growers.