Leeds spice: 'More mental health workers needed in the city'

Spiralling spice use in Leeds could be better addressed by sending more dedicated mental health workers out on the streets, according to the manager of a homelessness charity.

Simon on the Streets worker Gordon Laing said that many of the city’s rough sleepers – a majority of which are being drawn to the ‘synthetic cannabinoid’ at an average of £60 a day obtained through begging, he believes – already suffer from psychological issues, with anxiety posing a particular problem.

Gordon Laing.

Gordon Laing.

But with many users and addicts only interested in getting more drugs, they are not willing to accept help, and Mr Laing thinks that intervention with mental health support before users get clean, instead of after rehabilitation, is needed.

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Mr Laing and one of the charity’s outreach workers, who has asked to remain anonymous, spoke to the YEP as part of our series this week on spice use in the city.

The pair told how a relative lack of stigma surrounding the drug’s use has in part led to peddlers openly dealing the class B substance on the streets of Leeds.

But it is more dangerous than people realise, they say, with some batches reportedly laced with fentanyl – a potent opioid which can be 100 times stronger than morphine.

Leeds Spice.

Leeds Spice.

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Mr Laing believes that the mental health problems suffered by people living on the streets are feeding the demand for spice. But in many situations, users need to stop taking drugs before they can take professional help – and it is hard to get addicts engaged in addressing the root causes of their risky behaviour.

“A spice addict has got one aim in life,” Mr Laing said. “Where is he going to get his drugs from?”

“Street support for mental health - that’s what I’ve been harping on to everyone about.

“That’s what’s needed. [But] most of those lads and girls won’t engage.”

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Leeds City Council recently said in documents that it would recruit a specialist mental health social worker and nurse to work with the street outreach service, using £352,000 of Government funds received by the city for 2018/19.

The council, charities and grass roots organisations working together are “absolutely fantastic”, he said, but the spice situation is “getting worse”.

From January 2017 up until June this year, seven people were convicted across Leeds of crimes recorded using the word “spice” – which may not include those listed as “psychoactive substances” or “cannabinoid” – six for possession and one for possession with intent to supply.

Mr Laing called the majority of those convicted as “victims” of the real dealers.

Although recent raids have seen suspected dealers arrested, peddlers have been pushing spice brazenly on the streets, it is argued.

Mr Laing said: “It’s like they’re not scared at all of the authorities. They’re quite openly dealing it.

“In the rave times, even then it was quite covert. Now it seems to be quite open as if they don’t care. There is no embarrassment attached to it at all.”

But users “don’t know what they’re getting – there’s no quality control”.

The outreach worker said its open supply is in contrast to the “more hidden” use of drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, which are still “stigmatised” by the public.

But among those addicted to the class A substance who then start to take spice, “weeks will go by and they will realise they haven’t been on heroin in weeks,” the worker said.

Our series on spice began on Saturday with an exclusive report on Operation Damsonsdale, a police investigation targeting those who are dealing the drug.

Chief Inspector Richard Padwell, who heads up neighbourhood policing in Leeds city centre and chairs a multi-agency group on spice, said: “Clearly, tackling the criminal supply of the drug has been a major focus of our work over the last six months.

“A proactive operation by specialist officers from Leeds District Serious Organised Crime Unit has seen five people arrested and charged with dealing spice along with significant seizures of the drug. A further operation last week saw six people arrested for supply offences and further seizures made.”

Police officers working within the new Street Support Team set up by Safer Leeds have also mad a number of arrests in the city centre, Chief Insp Padwell added.