Cllr Nickie Aiken is the Cabinet Member for Public Protection, Westminster City Council.
Over the past year a disturbing trend has emerged that is destroying the lives of the country’s most vulnerable.
The number of rough sleepers addicted to ‘spice’, one of the many street names for synthetic cannabis, has increased dramatically, as this powerful drug passes hands on London’s streets. Use of spice amongst rough sleepers is now at epidemic levels, mainly because of how cheap and accessible it is compared to other, ‘more traditional’ drugs.
The effects: vivid and terrifying hallucinations, seizures, vomiting, and withdrawal effects more severe than heroin or crack cocaine.
An outreach worker recently told of a spice addict who was convinced he had a worm climbing through his blood stream and nearly rolled into traffic on one of London’s busiest streets.
At the same time, spice is fuelling increasing reports of attacks by rough sleepers on the very outreach teams that are trying to help them off the streets and into our support services.
The spice trade: from a lab in South Carolina to the streets of Westminster
It was in the sleepy student town of Clemson, South Carolina that Professor John W Huffman unwittingly invented ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ in his pursuit of new pharmaceutical products to manage chronic long-term condition.
Unfortunately for the American professor, his initials ‘JWH’ are now used to describe the super-strength former ‘legal highs’ that are preventing so many rough sleepers from turning their lives around, putting people in hospital, and threatening any gains made over recent years in treating traditional addiction.
Branded to the world by dealers as a safe alternative to other drugs, spice is significantly more addictive and dangerous than conventional marijuana and yet, as with any step-change in science, the state’s approach to regulation has struggled to keep up. A multi-million pound industry has built up as a result, while users – particularly rough sleepers – have suffered the consequences.
The Psychoactive Substances Act, brought into force this year by the Prime Minister in her time at the Home Office, has introduced penalties for the production and supply of substances such as spice.
The Act is hugely welcome by enforcement agencies and has already seen a number of police operations in Westminster to tackle the flow of drugs on to the street, but the demand for spice is so high that the law remains an occupational hazard rather than a real deterrent.
The way forward
Westminster City Council spends more than any other council in the UK on tackling rough sleeping and helping people off the streets.
Over half of new rough sleepers met by our outreach teams never see a second night out and there is a bed space for everyone in genuine need of help. We also have excellent services for those with serious substance misuse and addiction issues.
But the spice epidemic is evolving with terrifying speed. 22 per cent of the 430 homeless people staying in Westminster hostels in the first four months of 2016 were using the drug, a number that would have been closer to zero just two years ago.
I do not pretend that the answer is simple, but I worry that spice is a problem that is growing without society really noticing, in the same way that crack cocaine swept across the USA in the mid-1980s. If this is happening in Westminster now, it will be ravaging homeless communities in other British cities over the coming months and we are already seeing similar trends in Manchester, Bristol, Brighton and others.
We need central government, homelessness charities and health partners to come together with local authorities, the police and others to raise awareness and develop a long-term solution. On Monday 10 October I’ll be hosting a roundtable on ‘Spice and Rough Sleeping’ with our partners in government and the health sector, and will call for more powers to be given to the police to confiscate spice and other psychoactive substances from users exhibiting dangerous or anti-social behaviour as well as dealers.
This will give local communities another tool to help stem the tide and ultimately protect rough sleepers from this drug that is awash on the city’s streets.