"Black Mamba" is changing drug culture and wreaking havoc in the UK's prisons.
In the past, inmates might have got the traditional kicking after arriving at a prison for the first time. However, in 2015, in a number of British jails, there's a new kind of welcoming ritual: a trip in the "mambulance", AKA receiving medical treatment after getting too fucked up on synthetic weed.
There are plenty of brands of the stuff, but prisoners have chosen Black Mamba – something you'd find in most of the UK's head shops – as a catch-all name, and therefore inspiration for the mambulance, while prison officers have settled on Spice, a different brand that does exactly the same thing but sounds less like a glam rock covers band.
The huge rise in popularity of Mamba is down to it being untraceable in urine tests, which, if positive, can result in prisoners losing their jobs, withdrawal of privileges or the addition of extra days onto a term. Dogs sniffing visitors have not been able to detect its scent either, so the stuff is theoretically available in every prison in the country. With many not having tried it before, the strength of strains like "Annihilation" is what's catching new prisoners off guard, landing them in the mambulance after they try to roll up the same amount as they would in a weed spliff. Because the thing is, synthetic weed is nothing like real weed; it's dried plant matter covered in chemicals that are supposed to – but almost always fail to – replicate the effects of a cannabis high.
New prisoners are usually egged on by others eager for the ensuing entertainment of a synthetic weed whitey. Or, in some cases, the inmate is robbed of whatever possessions he has on him while his brain completely fails to register what's going on.
An inmate who recently served time in HMP Hewell and HMP Birmingham told me: "It's all about Mamba inside now, and it's sending people mad. But it sends people mad in different ways – unlike weed, coke or heroin, which you know how you're gonna act or how a brother will be high, this stuff is nuts."
He added: "People look straight through you, then head butt a wall or try to fight you or officers, then the next day they have no idea what they've done. There's a saying in the nick: 'If you're gonna smoke the Mamba, you better phone the mambulance.' And it's true – after a few pulls I was convulsing on the floor. And the whole wing knows, too, so the cheers go up when the mambulance comes."
Ambulance crews and prison medics have been trained to treat the slew of conditions a Mamba overdose can bring on, which include hypertension, accelerated heartbeat, high blood pressure, blurred vision, epileptic fits, hallucinations, acute psychosis and a total loss of control of one's bowels. The danger of Mamba is that its effect on different people is so unpredictable; to many it causes instant depressive thoughts or a comatose state. However, others can experience extreme anxiety and paranoia, which often leads to attacks on prisoners, screws or inanimate objects.
The popularity of Mamba may even have contributed to a recent increase of violent incidents between prisoners and with guards. A Parliamentary report published in March of this year revealed assaults on staff and other inmates rose by 7.1 percent when comparing the first nine months of 2014 with 2012. Self harm also shot up by 9 percent.
The Prison Officers Association cites synthetic cannabis as its members' number one problem. Michael Rolfe is a prison officer at HMP Elmley in Kent and deals with the effects of the substance on a daily basis. He said: "Spice is affecting every single jail in this country and is a widespread problem. Prisoners take spice, and other prisoners who sell it will sometimes lace it with chemicals like LSD and stuff like that, which sends prisoners into a frenzy. They then become a control issue for us and a danger to themselves, so we can't not intervene."
While the LSD claim seems a little dubious, there's no doubt the synthetic weed alone causes problems. Rolfe added: "Quite often they present themselves to us in a frenzied state and we have to do something."
Officer Rolfe blamed the drug for turning prisoners into a screw's worst nightmare – erratic, stronger and with a higher pain threshold.
He said: "They fight with us because of the intoxication of spice. They have a heightened strength and heightened adrenaline, so it makes them a lot stronger than they normally are, and they fight for longer."
Many prison officers have a tale of Mamba violence against themselves or a colleague, and Michael is no different.
He said: "We had a senior officer assaulted by a prisoner under the influence of spice; he was knocked unconscious and then continued to be punched by the prisoner. It was only the bravery of another member of staff that saved him. He has lost his hearing in one ear and is unable to get his balance [back]. He's unlikely to return to work, and that is a result of spice, so there's a real fear factor for staff now as it's leading to more assaults and more serious assaults."
The rewards for selling Mamba in prison are astronomical, which has led to some dealers committing offences inside to extend their stay, or criminals at liberty offending just to get locked up for a piece of the action. An ounce of Mamba, which costs £100 on the outside, can earn you no less than £1,800 inside. I was told one jail kingpin has even boasted of ordering gang members on the outside to burgle legal high shops to keep his supply lines; he's believed to have amassed over £50,000 in less than three months.
There were 15 seizures of spice in 2010, compared to 430 confiscations in the first seven months of 2014, according a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice. Alongside this huge rise in usage, government cuts have compounded the problem, leaving a depleted number of officers to face the crisis.
Peter McParlin, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said: "We always had incidents [of violence] in prison, but the level is now more than any in the last 32 years. We have less staff, so you can't manage [the violence]. Staff have saved staff, and there are even incidents of prisoners saving staff."
As it stands, it doesn't seem that too much can be done about the synthetic weed issue. Until dogs are trained to sniff the stuff out – or every prison introduces those full-body scanners you get at airports – it looks like many more British prisoners will be taking a trip in the mambulance.
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