Tough measures

Kit CalessKit Caless examines some of the issues behind the rush to outlaw new psycho­active substances (NPS)

The third reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill took place in Parliament on 20 January, and is due to be become an act on 6 April 2016. The bill has been subject to some controversy over definitions, not least the chance that poppers (alkyl nitrites) could be outlawed – which led to MP Crispin Blunt ‘outing’ himself as a popper user during the debate in Parliament. The accuracy of reports on harm, efficacy of a blanket ban, and accusations of rushed legislation have been consistently raised. One of the major issues with NPS has been a sharp rise of misuse in UK prisons.

In December 2015 HM chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, released a hard-hitting, upfront report on the misuse of substances in prisons. In the report he stated that NPS have created ‘significant additional harm’ and ‘are now the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system that our inspections identify.’ At the time the report was being made, ‘there was an acceleration in the use and availability of NPS’. Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and Black Mamba were used by 10 per cent of those surveyed. This is much higher than in the community, where only 6 per cent of those surveyed said they had used synthetic cannabinoids in the two months before going into custody.

Right now, NPS are banned in prisons, but their legal status and wide accessibility outside the prison gates makes them an attractive proposition for smuggling into prisoners. As Hardwick’s report states, ‘despite the high mark-up, they [NPS] are still relatively cheap in prisons.’ On top of this, current testing methods cannot detect synthetic cannabinoids, and new testing regimes can struggle to keep up with ever changing composition. It takes time to develop new drug tests, change legislation and develop new resources. When you’re testing for such a variety of chemical compositions, the NPS market likely always remains one step ahead.

Media reports have tended to focus on novel smuggling techniques, including drugs in tennis balls catapulted over prison walls, or even flown in using drones. Category C training prisons, which have large perimeters and relatively free prisoner movement as they go to and from work, are most susceptible to drugs coming over the wall. Of course, usual routes are also taken, through social visits and internal corruption. Hardwick controversially states that, ‘it has sometimes been difficult to make best use of the information available from individual establishments and other sources to identify changing needs and modify the strategy accordingly. In part, this reflects a too-willing acceptance in some establishments that drug misuse is an inevitable part of prison life and cannot be reduced.’

The danger of NPS use in prisons is highlighted in the report through anecdotal and quantitative evidence. Nineteen deaths in prison occurred between April 2012 and September 2014, where the prisoner ‘was known, or strongly suspected, to have been using NPS-type drugs before their deaths.’ The report surveyed more than 10,000 prisoners and found that, ‘debt associated with synthetic cannabis use sometimes leads to violence and prisoners seeking refuge in the segregation unit or refusing to leave their cells. Debts are sometimes enforced on prisoners’ friends or cell-mates in prison, or their friends and families outside.’

Not every prison has the same issues and it is not just the supply of NPS that is the problem in the UK prison network. Why have NPS become so attractive to prisoners? What can be done to tackle these problems? Should the focus, as some argue, be on the reasons why drugs are used in prison (boredom, demotivation, corruption), or on testing and punishment for usage? Hardwick says that any new strategy ‘needs to go beyond specific drug services to reducing demands for drugs by offering attractive purposeful alternatives, reducing prison violence and creating positive staff prisoner relationships.’

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

There are no quick and easy answers to any of the questions posed by the prevalence of NPS in Britain and its prisons. But the debate is still in full swing.

You can join in by attending ‘New psychoactive substances: no longer a novelty – the expert view’,

15 March in London.

Details at



‘It’s unworkable’

Harry Sumnall

The psychoactive substances bill is an Niamh Eastwood unnecessary and unworkable law, Niamh Eastwood, Release’s executive director, told the HIT Hot Topics conference, as the ‘unstoppable’ bill was rushed through parliament.

‘It’s opened a Pandora’s Box,’ she said. Media reports of our streets being ‘awash with these drugs’ meant that ‘we have to respond, regardless of harm or prevalence… but it’s a tiny number compared to the treatment system not being responsive to the needs of people accessing it.’

The Centre for Social Justice had used its Broken Britain report to justify the progress of the bill through the House, said Eastwood, quoting Vice, that ‘the death stats that government’s using to ban legal highs are total bullshit’.

Last year’s Global Drug Survey (GDS) had highlighted the extent of alcohol and tobacco use. But prohibition was not about the drugs, said Eastwood, it was about ‘social control’ and ‘the othering of certain groups’, including young people in deprived areas and people in prison.

The bill had not only created ‘a number of strange possession offences’, but penalties showed ‘no proportionality’. Furthermore the ban on exportation and importation of psychoactive substances for personal use meant head shops would close and people would buy ‘dodgy stuff’ online.

Quoting ACMD advice to the Home Office that ‘the psychoactivity of a substance cannot be unequivocally proven’, Eastwood said it was an example of needing to speak out when things were wrong. Proving psychoactivity was difficult, making the legislation unenforceable.

‘Get out there and tell people that this is one of the worst pieces of legislation ever drafted,’ she said. ‘It’s an affront to our brains.’

Professor Harry Sumnall, of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, said that from looking at treatment data, NPS didn’t seem to be an issue for treatment services – a long way from Neil McKeganey’s picture of ‘a scourge that could grow to eclipse heroin’, reported by the Scottish Daily Mail.

We were becoming prone to ‘risk illiteracy, where we don’t have a good handle on risk,’ he said. This could make us powerless to act or react.

The key message to emerge was, ‘don’t panic, we already know what to do’, said Sumnall. Existing approaches were ‘entirely suitable’, with classic harm reduction components ‘absolutely vital’, including messages around not sharing syringes.

‘It’s not about new drugs,’ he said. ‘We’re not seeing new and novel harms… It’s about understanding cultural practices.’