THIS time last year the dangers posed by ‘legal highs’ had become the focus of the national debate on drugs, prompting the Psychoactive Substances Act which outlawed their production and sale.
A number of videos have surfaced online in recent months of ‘zombie like’ people who have taken the most infamous of those substances – Spice – and a number of UK cities appear to be grappling with its continued use.
Drug and alcohol service Forward Leeds said it is only seeing very small numbers of people whose main issue is with synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and other new psychoactive substances (NPS).
But the drugs are still readily available to those who want them, even if the legislation has shut down the shops that earned an area near Leeds Market the nickname ‘Spice Corner’.
Early intervention worker Ben Holden said: “I think the people who were using it before the legislation are still able to get hold of it. Certainly speaking to people, it doesn’t seem to have had a huge effect.”
Bill Owen, early intervention manager, agrees that it may be less visible but it remains an issue among the homeless and people living in chaotic lives in particular.
“We’ve had a couple of times here where we’ve had to get ambulances where people have collapsed out in the street, where we’ve assumed they have taken Spice,” he said. “Certainly around Kirkgate, the market area, there’s something going on. We’re not the only ones who have called people out.
“I think if anything, it’s possibly concentrated it even more in that kind of vulnerable population.”
He said the move to ban the substances has potentially discouraged some people who had not understood the potential harms when they were legally sold.
“For people already using other substances though, the legislation is unlikely to be a major factor in their decision whether to take some form of NPS.
Mr Holden said: “I think with the substance using population, it’s not going to affect people’s attitudes.
“Most people who would take a substance like Spice would probably be using additional illegal substances anyway.
“It was always a lucky dip on how strong you were going to get it. The legislation doesn’t change the quality. It was always a bit of a gamble as to what you were going to get in it.”
A more likely factor in some people turning away from the former ‘legal highs’ has been growing awareness of the bad experiences many people have with Spice and similar substances.
But those who have started smoking Spice on a regular basis also report finding it highly addictive.
“People are finding they need to smoke more and more, and finding it very hard to stop because their withdrawal symptoms are quite severe,” Mr Holden said.
“It seems to me that the kind of problems are more like those that would be experienced by a heroin or crack user, rather than a cannabis user. It’s almost unfortunate that it’s associated with cannabis.”
The focus then for Forward Leeds remains on education to prevent use of these substances in the first place, while also supporting those using drugs and alcohol to any degree.
Mr Owen said: “People accessing services like ours are often coming because they’ve got a dependency.
“From our point of view, we want to see more people but we’re finding it hard to get to them.”
Mr Holden added: “Even if they’re not ready to make changes, we can help them with harm reduction.” A Leeds City Council spokesman said the local authority is working with other partners across the city to combat the use of NPS.
He said: “With partners across the city we provide a range of services to support those individuals who need help in overcoming their use of psychoactive substances.
“As part of this strategy, members of our street outreach team work closely with partner organisations to ensure people affected are offered and given the necessary help and support they need. Whilst there is some evidence to suggest that the use of ‘Spice’ in Leeds is a cause for concern, it is not at the same level as some other large cities.
“There is certainly no complacency from the council or partners on this issue, and we continue to work collaboratively to both prevent drug use and reduce the health and social harms of psychoactive substances.”
The Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect on May 26, 2016.
It made it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances.
Psychoactive substances are anything intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a profound or significant effect on mental processes, including nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
The maximum sentence for offences under the act is seven years in prison.
Synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice and Black Mamba, were covered by the Act but have since been reclassified as Class B Drugs. It means they are now illegal to possess.