Spice, Mamba, Kronic, Synthetics: many names, one problem

Thursday, 19 July 2018 - 5:30pm

Drug use has always come in waves and trends but the 21st Century has seen such rapid changes that local services, communities and drug users have struggled to keep up. 

Spice drug with smoking pipe

For services, this constant shift has left frontline workers feeling de-skilled and fearful of how to work with service users who use ‘newer’ drugs. Grouping them together with terms like ‘legal highs’ only helped to strengthen the problem.

To combat this, the UK government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) on 26 May 2016. Drugs no longer needed to be individually controlled and instead, a one-size fits all law could be applied to ensure no ‘legal high’ style selling could continue, whether it was in shops that freely sold ‘legal highs’ or through any UK-based websites. This meant casual and recreational use dropped but opened the door to more chaotic use.

One of the reasons why new drug trends came at such a rapid rate in the 21st Century has been down to the increase in technology, most notably the internet. The world of the ‘dark web’ (hidden websites needing specialist software) and an instant access to chemical structures of hundreds of drugs, means that drug dealers still have a very powerful tool. If the internet is not going away, we can assume that online drug dealing networks will not be disappearing either.

So why has ‘Spice’ become the new psychoactive substance of choice? You may have seen this in the media. It often shows vulnerable members of our society highly intoxicated and alongside the term ‘SPICE zombie’ to accompany sensational stories. But what is the reality? Why has this become such a problem?

Firstly, ‘Spice’ is not a singular drug. ‘Spice’ is a collective term for a family of drugs known as, Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists. Experts have estimated that there could be more than 500 separate synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists currently available, with the EMCDDA recorded at least 200 separate strains.  Any of these can be sold under the umbrella term of ‘Spice’. Why is this? Well, ‘Spice’ was a brand name for when synthetic cannabinoids began to be sold and the name has stuck. Think of it as brand names like Coca-Cola or Hoover. Despite these being brand names, we often use these terms interchangeably for any cola or vacuum cleaners. It just becomes part of our collective language.

Up until the PSA 2016, you could also buy a gram for between £5-10, since this time we have seen variations in cost, but largely we are still hearing it’s cheaper than most other drugs (or alcohol). We also have the potency. The majority is far stronger than Cannabis, with some strains being identified as being up to 800% stronger

‘Spice’ is also very easy to use. It is used like cannabis, sprinkled into a joint usually with tobacco and then smoked. This is far more socially acceptable than sniffing, smoking off foil or injecting and therefore much easier to do in public spaces.

If we think about the most vulnerable members of our society, then it is no wonder ‘Spice’ has found its market. We have seen a rapid rise in chaotic and addiction to ‘Spice’ within prison populations and homeless communities with many long-term harms still unknown. Add this to the fact of further stigmatisation by the media, being called ‘Spice Zombies’ the main example, we can see a potential for long-term embedded health, social and community issue.

The solution is to become more aware, confident and competent at working with our service users around ‘Spice’ use. To do this, services need to work together and look at the problem holistically. Other than homeless services, substance misuse services need to be involved due to their drug expertise, mental health services need to be involved as it is often self-medicating, criminal justice need to be involved due to the amount of use in prison settings, and local authorities need to be involved from a strategic element. We also need to feel confident about challenging the media for their stigmatisation of ‘Spice’ users. Like many drug addictions, they are often the solution to other problems. ‘Spice’ is just the latest issue that we need to work with and multi-agency and responsive attitudes will increase the likelihood of effective recovery.

To support Homeless services with this, we now have a specific ‘Spice’ training course that will skill professionals up on the history, the impact and the response to ‘Spice’ use. The course will also provide professionals with resources and tools to work with your service users to ensure effective harm-reduction is offered and long-term recovery can be achieved. For more information, click here.

Talk To Us

David Gill

Founder of Risk & Resilience training and consultancy

David Gill is the founder of Risk & Resilience training and consultancy. He has worked in the substance misuse field for 13 years in a range of frontline, training and strategic management positions.