New psychoactive substances

NPSPsychoactive challenge

New psychoactive substances don’t show up in mandatory prison drug tests and their use level in jails appears to be soaring, with worrying consequences. 

Last week justice secretary Chris Grayling announced a tough new set of punishments for prisoners using or smuggling new psychoactive substances (NPS), prompted by fears that their use is partly responsible for ‘increasing violence in our prison estate’ (see news story, page 4).

Whether the punishments will affect levels of use remains to be seen, but the fears do appear to be well founded. According to a HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on HMP Dartmoor, safety at the prison has been compromised by ‘the too-ready availability of prohibited drugs’ including synthetic cannabinoids ‘not detectable with current testing methods’, while a report on HMP Altcourse found that assaults and bullying incidents were ‘rising sharply’, with 38 serious assaults in the four months prior to the inspection. ‘Gang issues and the availability of drugs’ – particularly synthetic cannabinoids like ‘Black Mamba’ – were a ‘significant factor in much of the violence,’ it states, while the substances had also ‘been the cause of regular hospital admissions’.

Altcourse is one of the three prisons – all run by private sector organisations – to record the most drug finds in 2012-13, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice. The same figures show that the overall number of drug seizures in prisons in England and Wales has increased by 800 to 4,500 since 2010-11, while one of the key findings of the latest DrugScope Street drug survey is the increasing use levels of synthetic cannabinoids – alongside misuse of prescription drugs – in prison environments.

The scale of the NPS problem – particularly in terms of cannabinoids – has started to become apparent over the last six to 12 months, national officer at the Prison Governors Association, Mark Icke, tells DDN. ‘They were being used before that but probably we weren’t as on top of it as we should have been,’ he says. ‘But prisoners are starting to talk to us a bit more about it now so our intelligence systems are starting to gather more information, and as that intelligence churns out you start to get a better picture.’

So how much of a problem do these drugs represent? ‘It’s one of the biggest problems in our current history,’ he says. ‘A lot of the incidents of violence and sickness are related to the use of legal highs, for want of a better expression. It causes us problems with violence and with trying to run an orderly regime. Trying to get prisoners to work and education can sometimes be quite difficult because they’re ill or tired, so it causes us huge problems. But the violence is the bit that bothers me the most.’

And is that violence because of the associated drug debts or the unpredictable effects of the substances themselves – or both? ‘Both, absolutely,’ he states. ‘Incidences of violence have increased even over the last three months, and when you start to drill down and look at the circumstances there will either be some kind of hooch background, or, mainly, the legal highs.’

When people take traditional drugs, at least they – and staff – can be reasonably sure what the effects are likely to be, whereas stories of users of substances like ‘Black Mamba’ having fits and other adverse reactions abound. ‘Funnily enough, I was talking to a prisoner this morning who said, “if you smoke a joint you’re going to sit in your cell and have a chillout and play your game, have five minutes to yourself,”’ says Icke. ‘But he said that when people were using this stuff, you’re on edge – as he put it, “people who think they’ve got snakes for arms and want to fight the world”. It puts everyone on edge and increases that level of violence.’

Another issue that’s creating problems for staff is that the drugs are being used by people who wouldn’t necessarily have been part of a prison’s usual drug-using population.

‘The reason why some people don’t use drugs in prison is because we test for them,’ he says. ‘They don’t want to affect their sentence planning because they’ve got families to go home to or jobs to look forward to, or they’re trying to work through to a new category – a B to a C cat – or impress a parole board. So they won’t use drugs. But we can’t test for these on MDT [mandatory drug testing], so by using them you won’t have any consequences. There’s less risk.’

While there are plans to expand MDT to include NPS testing – once those tests become available – the fact remains that NPS are also easier to smuggle than traditional drugs. But while drug services inside and outside the prison estate are struggling to keep up with the bewildering array of new substances, support is available for prisoners who develop problems. ‘When we identify it, we do refer them,’ says Icke. ‘Each prison will have a different department, and in the ones I’m associated with it’s RAPt. We’ll refer the prisoners, or they can self-refer, but I think the best help in this situation is education – whether that’s peer-to-peer or staff trying to get the message out there.

‘I also believe there could be deaths linked to this,’ he states. ‘It’s harder to detect and people are less willing to talk about it, but I believe there have been deaths, and that bothers me greatly. This isn’t about media headlines – it’s about trying to prevent violence and death. We’re really worried about it.’

Inspection reports at

DrugScope street drug survey at