Different wavelengths

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Kit Caless

The countdown to the Psychoactive Substances Act has been marked by controversy. Kit Caless shares debate from Addaction’s recent conference

Last month, the Psychoactive Substances Act formed the focus of Addaction’s NPS conference, No longer a novelty: the expert view. More than 200 clinicians, practitioners, key workers, managers and many others heard a wide variety of views on both the coming legislation and approaches to NPS treatment. Ranging from the thought provoking to the outright provocative, there were almost as many opinions on the topic as there are psychoactive substances.

Met police commander Simon Bray kicked off the day discussing the implementation and enforcement of the Psychoactive Substances Act. To date, he explained, there have been ‘a small number of successes but they’ve been hard won and they’ve been expensive’, going on to stress that the police were able and ready to enforce the law, ‘as soon as the act begins.’ Bray also said that ‘poppers’ may not be included in the act ‘in a few months’ time’, foreshadowing subsequent Home Office confirmation to this effect.

Professor David Nutt took to the lectern next. Creating a febrile atmosphere, Nutt spoke about his opposition to the act and the myths he saw that surround NPS. In his trademark forthright way, he questioned the scientific validity of the act as it exempts substances on precedence rather than on harm, leading to a lively question and answer session afterwards.

Later on, minister for prisons, Andrew Selous discussed NPS use in prisons, citing a rise in violence related to NPS use as a serious problem. Selous informed delegates that ‘NPS testing is currently underway in 34 prisons [and] will be rolled out to all other prisons shortly.’ He spoke candidly on the difficulties posed by the explosion in NPS use, and left the audience in no doubt as to how seriously the trend was viewed.

In the second session, Majella Pearce from HM Inspectorate of Prisons returned to this topic, acknowledging the difficulties the prison system has had getting a handle on NPS use. She spoke specifically of spice (a synthetic cannabinoid) in prisons: ‘it’s very linked to violence, bullying, to debt’ and ‘for prison officers it really has been a huge change in the behaviours they are experiencing.’ She also added that the rise in synthetic cannabinoid use ‘really took a lot of people by surprise’.

Addaction’s Fern Hensley presented case studies on managing NPS in prisons. She told the audience that ‘one NPS-using prisoner said he wouldn’t access services because “spice isn’t a drug”’. Fern went on to showcase the Trans4orm drug treatment programme in HMP Lincoln, which has a 90 per cent completion rate. Dr Mark Piper, from Randox Testing, then took the delegates through the scientific process of testing and how difficult it is to stay on top of the ever-changing chemical make-up of NPS.

The afternoon session was chaired by Jan King from the Angelus Foundation. She spoke about their campaigning and then introduced Professor Harry Sumnall, whose compelling talk highlighted the problem of NPS in vulnerable populations, such as looked-after children and people experiencing homelessness. Sumnall said ‘levels of harm are not likely to be affected by the new Pychoactive Substances Act.’

Addaction’s Rick Bradley spoke about how NPS has affected young people. Guiding delegates through the history of NPS use he said, ‘there was a huge amount of confusion around the different products’ in 2010 when mephedrone became illegal. The mainstream media also came in for criticism – not for the first time over the course of the conference – as Bradley suggested coverage of NPS ‘really dilutes what we’re trying to put across, and that’s a real concern.’

Dr Owen Bowden Jones appeared via live video link and spoke about the Neptune Project, which is developing clinical best practice for treatment groups. But he also warned of a lack of data around NPS use: ‘We don’t know the long-term effects of five years of NPS use, we just don’t have the data yet.’ He advised clinicians to focus on the drugs’ effects, rather than their names.

Dr Ben Sessa gave an entertaining talk on prohibition – ‘the elephant in the room’, as he put it. He spoke of visiting around local head shops in Weston-super-Mare and asking what drugs were on the market and how you took them, noting that store employees would refuse to offer potentially useful harm minimisation advice for fear of prosecution.

Finally, Addaction’s Kostas Agath rounded things off to discuss how we move forward on this tricky issue. He said that services need to make potential service users feel welcome, speaking to them factually and with authenticity, and that it is paramount that NPS users can see that there are services out there for them.

The conference produced opposing views, case studies and evidence, dialogue, debate and a great deal of discussion. NPS use is likely to remain a controversial issue in the substance misuse sector over the coming years, so it’s essential that the conversation continues.

Kit Caless is Addaction’s communications officer for London and the South East