There are few issues that unite emergency services workers - and Police and Crime Commissioners – like that of vast collection of synthetic drugs like Spice.
A huge increase in the problems caused by these substances has resulted in scores of deaths among users, assaults on police, paramedics and members of the public and a growing sense that some of our towns and cities are not as safe as they should be.
Make no mistake, although the manufacturers of these drugs make attempts to liken them to cannabis – spraying chemicals onto plants to give the appearance of something natural – they are anything of the sort. Spice and associated drugs are so powerful and harmful that some addicts think that their best bet of getting off them is to wean themselves onto ‘softer’ drugs like heroin.
The cost to society of the explosion in these drugs is now so prohibitive - and the evidence of their use so clear to see across Devon and Cornwall - that last week I was happy to add my support to letter calling for the Home Office to reclassify synthetic cannabinoid substances to class A drugs. Currently they are class B, alongside cannabis, meaning relatively light penalties for those who deal them.
I’ve witnessed the damage caused by these substances first hand, it is on a par with that caused by heroin and crack cocaine, so it’s only right that those who peddle misery to some of our most vulnerable people, the young, mentally ill and homeless, should face tougher sentences when brought before the courts.
Synthetic cannabinoids are often referred to as zombie drugs due to their incapacitating and unpredictable psychoactive effects. Their users can be seen slumped on the streets in a state of semi consciousness, often passed out, sometimes aggressive and always highly unpredictable. The national outcry about this issue is such that the Lincolnshire PCC Marc Jones’ letter to the Home Office calling for a tougher stance on these substances was supported by 19 other PCCs, myself included.
Synthetic cannabinoids are being increasingly linked to deaths, with 27 people killed by them in 2016 according to the Office for National Statistics, when in the previous 21 years just three were recorded. Every indication is that this figure is likely to rise. And it’s not just about the fatalities. Users suffer other ill health effects such as psychosis. Their chances of leading regular, productive and meaningful lives are reduced with every dose.
Marc suggests that these drugs now represent the one of the most severe public health issues we have faced in decades. That view would be backed up by what we’ve seen in Devon and Cornwall. Use of synthetic cannabinoids is prevalent in prisons here in the Westcountry, our social workers struggle to deal with the devastating impact that they have on family life and our business community is justifiably concerned about the impact of Spice users in town centres.
Like the subject of homelessness I wrote about last week, there are no simple solutions but rather a joined-up approach is required if we are to make any real progress in this area. Tougher sentences and more robust policing will help. This year my office increased the police precept in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, partly so we could fund more frontline officers, but arrests will only ever be part of the solution.
While we need to make sure those who deal addictive and dangerous drugs are dealt with by the criminal justice system, we also have to ensure that the police work with the NHS, councils and third sector organisations like drug treatment charities to ensure that addicts who want to quit have access to housing and high quality drug treatment programmes.
We’ve got a long way to go on this issue, I’ve written to Devon and Cornwall’s MPs to ask them to support the reclassification and I will continue to campaign with my fellow PCCs until the Government does its bit to help. Reclassifying these drugs will send out the message that our communities have had enough, it’s time to take action.