Why reclassifying Spice as a Class A drug won’t work

We need to leave the ‘war on drugs’ mentality behind

Featured image via UniLad/YouTube

Spice is a synthetic drug that mimics the effects of cannabis. It’s a growing problem in communities and prisons around the UK and has attracted significant media coverage.

Understandably the problem has prompted a discussion about what should be done. Today, a debate in Westminster asks whether Spice should be reclassified from a Class B to a Class A drug, a move that would increase the penalty for both possession and supply.

I’ve worked in the drug and alcohol sector for 10 years and I’m convinced that reclassifying Spice is not the answer.

I work as a clinical pharmacist with a national treatment provider, but I’m also an advocate for the people who use our services. Their voice is often absent from the ‘what to do’ debate’. Most people who use Spice are highly vulnerable, homeless, or in prison.

In 2016, Spice and other so-called ‘legal highs’ were made illegal under the new Psychoactive Substances Act. The objective was to close a legislative loophole that allowed the sale of legal highs in shops. Further legislation was introduced in January 2017, when Spice was classified as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

While problematic, the sale of legal highs in shops at least came (usually) with harm reduction advice and a rudimentary degree of quality control. Legislation has simply shifted distribution from shops into the hands of street dealers. Whatever small degree of control we had was lost to gangs and criminality. Spice is now cheaper than heroin and is a major public health problem.

Two years ago Professor David Nutt, a drugs policy specialist, said “the only people who will benefit [from regulating legal highs] will be the drug dealers. They’ll have a monopoly.” He warned of more deaths, more dangerous substances and no quality control.

Today, Spice is an increasingly visible problem in many communities, symptomatic of a policy that isn’t working, either for the people who need our help or worried communities. Professor Nutt’s view is one shared by many of us working in the sector: legislation and reclassification has made a bad situation much worse.

Spice is far more potent than ‘regular’ cannabis and targets receptors in the brain with such ferocity that its effects are, according to one of my clients, ‘like being hit with a sledgehammer’. The highly visible and distressing effects of Spice have driven much of the media coverage and led to lots of ‘zombie’ headlines and pictures of people comatose on the street.

A sad side effect is the rise of social media pages that post pictures and videos of people under the influence of Spice. Local authorities are struggling with the real and understandable concerns of people in their communities: it’s not a nice thing for anyone to see. People want to see action, but we need positive, health-based measures to help people connect with services and get their lives back together. Further penalties aren’t the answer. The genie is out of the bottle and we need to help people rather than punish them.

The use of Spice should be treated as a health problem, not a matter for the courts. In practice this means diverting them away from the criminal justice sector and into properly funded treatment services in their own communities. Once there we need to do a much better job of connecting them with housing, employment, and mental health services. We know how to help people with drug problems. Sending them to prison isn’t the answer.

Spice was created in a lab to get around the laws that ban drugs like cannabis. It gained popularity among the most vulnerable in our society and is now killing people because supply is in the hands of gangs and dealers. By way of comparison, in Portugal (where the use of all drugs has been decriminalised since 2001) reported use of drugs like Spice is lower than for any other country where reliable data exists.

Further legislation will make life harder for people who need help. We need to be brave and leave the failed ‘war on drugs’ mentality behind for good.