We've heard multiple warnings about the havoc being caused in British prisons by the widespread use of synthetic cannabinoids (SCs): violence, debt, overdoses and offenders out on license deliberately committing crime so they can go back to jail with Kinder Egg capsules full of the stuff hidden up their arses.
But it's about to get worse. New research adds further weight to building evidence that brand names such as Vertex, Black Mamba and Clockwork Orange have similar addictive properties to heroin.
A study carried out by researchers at the School of Health Sciences at Waterford Institute of Technology is "the first of its kind to describe the development of dependence and withdrawal syndrome" in users of SCs. In-depth interviews with a group of dependent users in a council estate in Ireland revealed "the rapid development of tolerance, regular dependent use within short timeframes and acute withdrawal on cessation of use".
The study, "User Experiences of Development of Dependence on the Synthetic Cannabinoids, 5f-AKB48 and 5F-PB-22, and Subsequent Withdrawal Syndromes", described "compulsive all-consuming drug seeking and using behaviours... intense cravings... inability to cease use, with fear of the psychiatric harms caused when in withdrawal".
"Over time, all participants described general decrease in function, characterised by loss of appetite, breathlessness, cardiac conditions requiring medication, skin ablations, tooth decay, tremors and insomnia, which were all exacerbated when attempting to reduce use," said the study.
It found acute physical withdrawal symptoms including chest pains, chest pressure, tachycardia and palpitations, lower extremity pain and spasms, nausea, sweating and vomiting – all similar to what heroin users experience when going cold turkey.
One interviewee told the researchers: "If I haven't got it I get the sickness in my stomach, the sweating starts, the weakness starts... a cold shiver through you, but as soon as you get a smoke of the herbal you are back to normal." Another said: "It's a curse on everybody in this town to be honest."
The psychological withdrawal symptoms identified included anxiety, agitation, paranoia and suicidal tendencies. One SC user told the researchers: "I don't want to hurt myself, but it's going to come that far. I just hate it... [it's] so hard to get off it, so hard to do anything. There's only one way of getting off herbal and that's taking yourself out of this life."
The findings led the authors to call for detoxification, addiction counselling, crisis intervention and family support for dependent users to be set up to deal with the problem.
A currently unpublished research study into heavy SC users in Lancashire paints an equally graphic picture. One of the authors of the study is drug expert Michael Linnell, who, despite spending his career helping heroin and crack users, is unafraid to a draw a comparison between heroin and SC.
"We spoke to 50 or so people who described an addiction and withdrawal similar to heroin," says Linnell. "Even experienced heroin users who had stopped heroin and become addicted to synthetic cannabinoids described withdrawal as being similar or worse than heroin."
Like the old school heroin and crack users, some SC users are committing crime to feed their addiction. Linnell says synthetic weed users he spoke to had robbed a jeweller's shop and mugged people in the street to pay for their next packet.
"There are vulnerable young people who were walking around like zombies all day, who couldn't sleep, queuing up outside shops in the morning or getting up at 4AM to go to score because they were withdrawing," he says. "If that kind of dependence behaviour is not like a heroin-type addiction, I don't know what is."
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Yet, Linnell says that unlike the heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, the rise in synthetic weed addiction has been allowed to fester because many drug users do not regard it as a "real drug", and services set up to deal with heroin addiction are unable to attract people addicted to the new, highly unpredictable drug in their midst.
"Most adult drug services around the UK are not geared up for this addiction," says Linnell. "Some of the drug users themselves do not take synthetic cannabinoids seriously. They are off heroin, but using Mamba, Spice, 'green crack' – whatever they call it – and they think, 'I'm drug-free now.' But they are discovering it can be just as addictive and just as hard to get off."
Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey, which provides insight into a more mainstream drug-using population because it is conducted online, says respondents admitted that withdrawal from SC was "far more problematic" than skunk.
But it is among the street homeless and in Britain's hostels and halfway houses where the synthetic weed problem is most acute. As with heroin and crack use, official drug use statistics undoubtedly underestimate the true prevalence of SC use. The most vociferous users of this drug – young offenders, inmates, people living in hostels and on the streets – are too far off the radar to be reached by the Home Office's door-knocking survey.
At Lifeshare, a project in Manchester set up to help 16 to 25-year-olds who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, 95 percent of the 300 young people on their books smoke it. Two-thirds are addicted to it. The other third, says support worker Julie Boyle, are on their way to being addicted to it.
They typically use between five to ten gram-bags a day, says Boyle, who sees withdrawal – or the "rattle", as she calls it – on a daily basis. Ambulances come around five times a week to pick up those who've keeled over from too much Annihilation or Vertex, the two brands currently most common in Manchester.
"But when the paramedics get here they don't know what to do – they can't counteract it," she says. She's right: treatment for synthetic weed overdose and addiction is in its infancy. No one really knows what to do. "Synthetic cannabis is the worst thing to hit Manchester since heroin," she says. "But at least we knew then what to do. We have no idea what the long-term dangers are of synthetic cannabis, and you never know what's in the packet."
One of Lifeshare's service users, Deebo, 24, has been smoking up to ten 1g bags a day for around a year. He's homeless, but can buy seven 1g bags for £35 from a nearby head shop after a morning begging. Two weeks ago, with the help of Lifeshare, he decided that he would reduce his intake to two grams a day because he had virtually stopped eating and cleaning himself. "The withdrawal was bad – my mental health deteriorated, I had terrible belly cramps, I was sweating and itchy all over," he says.
Deebo is not alone. Everyone he knows in Manchester is using synthetic weed: "Yesterday I saw two little kids, about 13 years old, crumbling some Annihilation into a spliff in a doorway. It was depressing."
When I ask him where he'll buy his SC when the head shops stop selling it after the Psychoactive Substances Act kicks in on the 26th of May, he says he's wary of street dealers because he's "worried about what they'll put in it". What's for certain is that street dealers will be in control of a drug that can only get more volatile, and which is slowly frying the most vulnerable people in society.
Meanwhile, the real "green crack" time bomb is ticking away behind barbed wire fences, within the prison system. It is now virtually the only drug inmates are using.
Andy, a prisoner recently released from Strangeways Prison, explained: "You can tell everyone's smoking it because of the way they look. I call it the 'melting fish face'. Its stupidly addictive. It's out of hand – they're all looking for little dimps on the floor to stick in a roll-up. They're desperate for their next fix because they've got fuck all else to do." Andy says there's an endless supply: "There's so many people coming into jail from the courts with Spice; two newcomers a day come in with their arses packed. Everyone's standing around to wait until they shit it out."
The rise of SC addiction has been a disaster of the government's own making, and it threatens to trash what efforts there have been to rehabilitate Britain's homeless and prison populations.
Our SC problem, which began in young offenders institutions and spread to create more addicts in the streets and adult jails, was not created solely in a lab. It was formed as a result of a succession of governments that have failed to deal with two issues: the dearth of meaningful activity in our prisons and a short-sighted drug policy mantra that has turned a humble cannabis plant into an ultra toxic bag of shite. If David Cameron truly does not care about his country's underclass, then cheap, illegal synthetic drugs are his perfect solution.
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