The ‘Spice is Rife’: Synthetic cannabinoid use amongst the homeless in the UK

A recent study carried out by Dr Paul Gray and Dr Rob Ralphs from Manchester Metropolitan University has found that synthetic cannabinoids – referred to generically as ‘Spice’ – are rife amongst the homeless community in Manchester, with an estimated 80 to 95 per cent of the homeless in the city using synthetic cannabinoids.

The study found that their undetectable nature (both in public spaces and in mandatory drug tests), potency (when compared to skunk cannabis) and low cost make synthetic cannabinoids particularly appealing for an economically disadvantaged group such as the homeless. When combined with the extremely addictive nature of synthetic cannabinoids, it is clear to see why many of those interviewed for the study had replaced problematic use of other substances (typically heroin and crack cocaine) with solely synthetic cannabinoids. Indeed, it would appear that the problematic drug use of the homeless in the city is now much more likely to be synthetic cannabinoids rather than the intravenous heroin use traditionally associated with this group.

Furthermore, the increases in tolerance reported by those interviewed for the study has resulted in many homeless users going from spending £5 to £10 a day on synthetic cannabinoids to spending around £50 a day. With users spending this much, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of users of synthetic cannabinoids are resorting to acquisitive crime, begging and prostitution to fund their habit.

Yet despite the evidence of addiction and dependency – combined with the detrimental physical and mental health effects reported by those in the study – it is concerning that only a very small minority of homeless synthetic cannabinoid users in the city appear to be engaged with any kind of treatment services. It is clear that substance use treatment services need to do much more to counter the commonly held view amongst the homeless that they are only for injecting heroin and crack cocaine users. Alongside this is the need for treatment services to develop approaches and interventions tailored specifically towards dependent users of synthetic cannabinoids.

 

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