Prisons in the UK Are Facing a Synthetic Marijuana Epidemic

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This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Liz Truss told members of parliament that "barking dogs" are being used to deter drug-laden drones from getting into jails. This, of course, is nonsense, and even Truss’s own party members had a giggle on the green benches behind her. But the serious side of her gaffe is that it represents how clueless the government is when it comes to dealing with a drugs-related prison crisis that’s spiraling out of control.

Amid dwindling resources and a rapidly shrinking number of prison officers, the prison estate has—over the last three years—been almost entirely hijacked by one drug: the toxic powder sprinkled into spliffs commonly known as Spice, Mamba, Smeg or, behind bars, Bird Killer.

The government’s own Prisons Inspectorate has described Spice as "the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system." And it’s not wrong: Since moving into the adult-prison scene from young offenders institutions in 2011, the widespread use of these synthetic cannabinoids has caused carnage.

Today, two new documents exposing the realities of modern prison drug markets and how to tackle them were published. Both should be a painful but instructive read for prison officials planning the government’s overhaul. Both describe a drug situation in prisons that would seem farcical, if it wasn’t for the serious damage the situation is causing to inmates, prison officers, and prisoners’ families.

"High Stakes: An Inquiry into the Drugs Crisis in British Prisons," published by drug policy experts Volteface, exposes the "meteoric rise in the supply and use" of Spice among Britain’s 80,000-strong prison population. The report’s author, George McBride, told me, "Spice has been a game changer for prison drug policy, yet the government has refused to change its game."

The report describes "horrific incidents of the abuse" of mentally ill prisoners tortured for drugs debts or forced into overdosing on Spice. It said organized crime groups are tapping into prisoners’ friends and families in order to get debts paid: "In extreme cases, prisoners’ families have been known to turn to prostitution to clear their debts. Other families have been blackmailed with footage of violence to their incarcerated family member taken on an illegal mobile phone."

The report warned the government that its prison-reform plans will fail if it doesn’t tackle the drugs problems in jails differently.

"If we were able to stem the supply of drugs anywhere, you would think that maximum-security prisons would be the place," it says. "High walls, razor wire, security gates, sniffer dogs, and extensive CCTV have not worked. Prisons are the place in our society in which drug use is most rife and drugs are most readily available."

It calls for prisoners to be given more purposeful activity to help reduce demand for drugs, and for the scrapping of mandatory drug tests, which it says are a waste of time and money that merely drive prisoners to use newer, potentially more dangerous drugs such as Spice because they are not detected in tests. The consequence of this would be the gradual return to prisons of cannabis, a less damaging drug for prisoners.

"Rather than guiding drug users to those drugs with the lowest harm, [current policy] is driving drug use in the opposite direction," says the report. "Where once the smell of cannabis was part and parcel of men’s local prisons, that smell has now been replaced by a subtle beast; odorless, synthetic chemicals."

Almost a year ago today, on December 8, 2015, Jordan Palmer battered his prison cellmate to death with a flat screen TV. Palmer’s defense was that he was annoyed that Terence Ojuederie was smoking Spice on the bottom bunk at HMP Peterborough. He said he either got high off the fumes, accidentally smoked one of Ojuederie’s Spice-spiked cigarettes, or smoked one of his own cigarettes, which had been spiked, and ended up killing his cellmate. The jury accepted this, and Palmer was found guilty of manslaughter by diminished responsibility.

The huge profits to be had from smuggling in Spice—because it’s so cheap on the outside, addictive on the inside, and undetectable by most prison drug tests—has ratcheted up the already over-inflated prison drug market, creating an underworld of intense addiction, intimidation, violence, and debt used as a form of entertainment and extortion that spreads beyond prison walls.

Swathes of the prison population are addicted to Spice, resulting in a web of smuggling, extortion, intimidation, and violence, as more and more inmates become indebted to prison dealers. Scores of ambulances are called out to jails each month to pick up prisoners who have overdosed on Spice. The drug has sparked a rise in volatile behavior, attacks on prison guards, and suicides.

So what’s the government going to do about it? Apart from the brilliant barking dogs plan, the government last month announced "the biggest overhaul of the British prison system in a generation," in an attempt to stem the chaos. It plans to increase the number of prison guards and ramp up security. The problem is that it won’t work. The drugs will still get in, as they always have done.

Prisons have been the government’s drug-littered problem since the 1970s. Back then, as the number of drug overdoses inside increased, the Prison Service’s policy was to pretend there was no problem. By the 1980s, amid the spread of heroin and cannabis use in prisons—and allegations that tranquilizers were being used as chemical coshes to control and punish inmates—the hush-hush policy began to unravel.

In 1985, a committee of MPs investigating prisons was told that prison was a place "where uncontrolled drink and drugs are readily available." The National Association of Probation Officers revealed that "prison staff collude with the use of cannabis unless it becomes so virulent that a purge is necessary for credibility to be retained." Prison medics told the same inquiry: "When an addict goes to prison, he will be able to continue with drug abuse. It is common knowledge among addicts that drugs are available."

Since then, the flow of drugs into prisons—where inmates are crying out for a way to deal with the boredom—has been biblical. Yet consecutive efforts at cleaning up the prison drug market, with huge investment in the 1990s, the expansion of mandatory drug testing, drug-free wings, and heightened security such as CCTV and body scanners, have all abjectly failed.

Related: Watch ‘The Hard Lives of Britain’s Synthetic Marijuana Addicts’ our documentary about the users who have become addicted to spice

Legal highs are set to be outlawed by the British government in response to a growing number of news reports about students overdosing on the synthetic drugs.

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VICE Reports 14 minutes

The Hard Lives of Britain’s Synthetic Marijuana Addicts

VICE Reports

The Hard Lives of Britain’s Synthetic Marijuana Addicts

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The Hard Lives of Britain’s Synthetic Marijuana Addicts

Also published today is the most in-depth analysis of a modern prison drug market ever undertaken. The research, "Adding Spice to the Porridge," was carried out over six months at a prison last year by criminologists at Manchester Metropolitan University. It reveals how the synthetic cannabinoids market "was firmly established across all prison wings, including the ‘drug free’ recovery wing," with between 60 to 90 percent of prisoners in the jail regular Spice smokers.

It describes how the Spice trade has become an integral part of the psychology and economics of prison life. Prisoners regularly abuse the prison-license-recall system by deliberately getting sent back to prison in order to smuggle in Spice. Some do it for their own profit, while others are forced into becoming drug mules to pay off debts.

The report says Spice has become so profitable, worth ten times its amount behind bars, that the traditional drugs market in heroin and cannabis has collapsed. In the first three months of 2015, recorded amounts of recovered synthetic cannabinoids (973g) far outweighed the quantities of cannabis (15g) and heroin (3g) seized by the prison.

Andy, who came out of Strangeways Prison last year, told me: "You make sure you are plugged when you go and commit a crime, in case you go straight back in. So you go with Spice up your ass for a burglary. You deliberately get yourself arrested or break your license, so you can go back in jail and sell Spice. As we speak, there are people in police cells around the country with drugs up their asses, waiting to come back inside."

The prison study, led by senior criminology lecturer Robert Ralphs, singled out the abject failure of security measures in stemming the drug trade in prisons and, as with the Volteface report, calls for an end to mandatory drug testing.

"The widespread availability of synthetic cannabinoids in this environment has created a dangerous recipe for prisoner well-being, the safety of prisoners and prison staff, and the prison regime," says the report. "We can only conclude, then, that the policy of testing prisoners for drug use, designed to reduce harms and improve prisoner wellbeing, has patently failed. An alternative solution, and one within our grasp, is the removal of MDTs among those in custody at a minimum, for cannabis detection."

Prisons are a microcosm of mainstream society, and as such, you will never stop people who want to take drugs from taking them. Locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with little meaningful activity, it’s no wonder prisoners have relied on narcotics as a way of making their sentence seem shorter.

As one drug using prisoner told drug market researcher Charlotte Tompkins: "In jail, it’s the same, same routine 24/7. Yes, alright, it’s a different day, but it’s the same. You need a head change. Prison is depressing. So you use drugs to—even though it is momentarily—escape where you are."

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