The Impact of New Psychoactive Substance Use in English Prisons on Mental Health and Violence

New research conducted in an English prison has reported that synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as ‘Spice’ is now, according to the report aptly named ‘Adding Spice to the Porridge’, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, so profitable that the traditional contraband market in heroin and cannabis has “almost been wiped out”. The price of a gram of ‘Spice’ in custody is as high as £100.  Another factor driving the market surge, researchers said, was that the substance did not show up in mandatory drug tests.

Dr Rob Ralphs

Lead researcher Dr Rob Ralphs, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “It is no exaggeration to say that the synthetic cannabinoid market has exploded and unleashed a series of devastating impacts on prisons, prisoners and prison staff.”

The report detailed how psychoactive legal highs had “swept through the prison system with devastating effects” for mental health, violent behaviour, physical wellbeing and offender rehabilitation.  Harmful effects include anxiety, depression, paranoia, extreme violence, psychosis, addiction, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, researchers said.

Researchers said the impact of legal highs on the prison system had been outlined in previous HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports, which had linked its use with a surge in serious assaults, and year on year increases in self-harm and suicides.

“The potency and addictiveness have been compared to heroin, violent incidents have increased, and they wreak harm on prisoners’ mental and physical health,” Ralphs said.

Ralphs said: “Drug testing policies should be reviewed. The introduction of testing for drugs such as cannabis in 1996 has led to 20 years of more problematic drug use. Firstly, heroin and more recently the desire to avoid positive drug tests has fuelled the demand for synthetic cannabinoids.

“With so many strains, developing accurate mandatory drug testing is expensive and flawed. We recommend diverting money wasted on drug testing into prisoner education and training and staffing.”

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction recently identified 160 new strains of synthetic cannabinoids since the original variant, Spice, was banned in 2009. Spice was among a raft of legal highs to be banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act, which came into force in May 2016.

By Dr Rob Ralphs, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University

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