Spice, formerly a ‘legal high’, is considered ‘very unpredictable and dangerous’
Published: 26 January, 2017
By WILLIAM McLENNAN
USERS of highly-addictive synthetic cannabis are being arrested on the streets of Camden for the first time following a controversial change in the law which has been criticised for criminalising the vulnerable.
The sale and production of the drug known as spice – which had been readily available from dozens of shops in Camden and was said to be having a “devastating” impact on homeless addicts – was outlawed in May last year with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act.
Under the Act, which banned a range of so-called “legal highs”, users of the drug could not be prosecuted, with government ministers responsible for pushing the legislation stating at the time: “We do not want to criminalise individuals for possession.”
But spice – officially known as a synthetic cannabinoid – was quietly moved under the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and reclassified as a Class B drug in December, making it illegal to possess even small amounts.
Last week, Camden police made their first two arrests for possession of spice – one in Camden Road on Tuesday and another in Camden Town on Thursday.
Campaigners, who call for reform of our drug laws, have criticised the move for needlessly criminalising users and called it a “missed opportunity to continue a path of reform”.
Neil Woods, a former police officer who spent more than a decade arresting drug dealers, said: “Instead of doing something to help people who are homeless, the might of the state is persecuting them and causing them more problems.
“These people are self-medicating for the trauma and the situation that they have found themselves in, and we further traumatise them by criminalising them and possibly them ending up in prison – and we know, of course, the prisons are in crisis, so who does this help?”
Mr Woods, who now campaigns for the regulation of drug markets as part of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said: “There was going to be an element of decriminalisation to protect young people, in particular, from the criminal justice system. Now, more people are going to get caught up in the criminal justice system and it’s only going to cause them harm. It’s a missed opportunity to continue a path of reform.”
A drug counsellor, who has seen the impact of spice first-hand in Camden, said: “We are all aware of the damage it does, but is criminalising people the answer? I think any logical person that knew the problems would agree that it is not.”
While the use of spice is believed to have decreased following last year’s ban, it continues to be a problem among homeless addicts, with the trade driven from high street shops into the hands of drug dealers.
Police in Camden Town, where the problem is particularly acute, have welcomed the additional powers.
PC Sam Sharpley said: “Obviously, we know the seriousness of the drug, very unpredictable and dangerous.
“So actually being able to intervene by arrest at an early stage should make a big difference.
“Diverting someone before they have a chance to hospitalise themselves or someone else under the influence is obviously pretty key here. You don’t tend to find that happening with, for example, a cannabis joint.”
At the height of the “spice attacks” last year, paramedics were being regularly called to users who had collapsed or were vomiting and losing consciousness, only to come round minutes later and refuse further treatment.
Sergeant Nick Clarke said making possession illegal would force users off the streets. “By bringing it indoors, that has its own problems, but what you have not got is the apparently mentally ill person – who’s not, they’re just under the influence of spice – stepping out in front of traffic trying to dance with headphones on that are not plugged into anything – that I’ve personally dealt with first-hand.”
He said police were unlikely to seek prosecutions of homeless users in possession of small amounts, but said: “By making it illegal, we have more options.”
Announcing the move in December, Sarah Newton, minister for vulnerability, safeguarding and countering extremism, said: “It will now be illegal to possess synthetic cannabinoids such as spice, sending out a clear message that we recognise how dangerous these drugs are and we will not tolerate them in this country.”
Two men arrested in August on suspicion of dealing spice are yet to be charged.