A survey has been launched in Manchester to gauge the extent of legal high use in the city to ensure service providers can deal with the aftermath of a government ban that begins in April.
The survey comes as researchers reveal psychoactive substances are already being stockpiled in anticipation of the ban, a blackmarket in legal highs is already well established, and up to 90% of homeless people use them.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 bans any "psychoactive substance" - anything that can affect the brain - and has been widely slammed as pointless and ineffective. The definition of what constitutes a psychoactive substance has also been called vague, and too broad.
"One of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drug legislation ever," is the blunt assessment of the bill by Labour MP Paul Flynn.
Dr Rob Ralphs and Dr Paul Gray have been commissioned by Manchester City Council to carry out research on the prevalence of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) - better known as legal highs - within the city. The findings will be used by the council to inform service provision within Manchester.
The study, by the senior lecturers in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, will involve an online survey which they hope 1,000s of users and non-users will complete, and in-depth interviews with legal high users and a range of professionals working with NPS users.
Ralphs said he saw the survey as more of a "starting point, rather than an end point".
"There is no doubt that the (Psychoactive Substances) Act has been rushed through in a very short timeframe but that is a matter for the government to defend.
"On a local level I think that Manchester City Council and Public Health department deserve credit for investing in this research which we hope will impact on the development of better service provision, training and best practice at not only a local level but also nationally and internationally."
Ralphs said despite significant media coverage about legal highs, "We are still not seeing huge numbers coming through treatment services. The extent of the problem is currently unknown, both nationally and locally."
He said the research will help establish the scale of NPS use, the types of people that use them, and the effects of use on both individuals and services.
Councillor Paul Andrews, executive member for Adult Health and Wellbeing, said the research will give the council a "better understanding as to what gaps we may have in our provision". He said it will also ensure council staff are trained to deal with all outcomes, and can provide the best possible advice relating to legal highs.
Gray said researchers are "particularly interested" in finding out exactly what legal highs are being used in Manchester because despite over 500 new psychoactive substances being identified in the last five years by the EU Early Warning System, "it is still unclear how many of these are filtering through locally to users".
Legal high use is often linked to young people, but the researchers are keen to examine how use varies across different groups including the LGBT community, vulnerable young people, students, clubbers and the homeless.
Homeless Link, the national membership organisation for homelessness charities, has been working with homeless organisations in Manchester to tackle the issues associated with NPS use among those sleeping rough.
Gavin Benn from Homeless Link said rough sleepers had identified their use of NPS as having a "significant impact" on their housing situation, physical health and relationships.
Ralphs said the largest number of newly identified legal highs are synthetic cannabinoids - like 'spice'. Use of this NPS, he said, is reaching "epidemic levels" within the prison population, with estimates typically suggesting that between 60-90% of prisoners are using them. Similar levels of use also exist among the homeless.
Ralphs said many rough sleepers start using legal highs while in prison and continue the habit once released as it is far cheaper, and stronger, than illicit drugs. A gram of synthetic cannabinoids can be purchased for £5 - less than half the price of the equivalent quantity of cannabis - and less is needed to roll a joint. However, as a result of its strength, the physical and psychological withdrawals and reported effects are "more in line with those associated with crack cocaine or heroin", he said.
Synthetic cannabinoids, Ralphs said, are "allegedly fifty to a hundred times stronger than cannabis, and these substances are reported to be highly addictive and linked to a range of mental health issues”.
He said some users had reported that synthetic cannabinoids use had "taken over existing addictions to heroin, crack, alcohol and cannabis".
"A £5 packet of ‘Spice’ is much more affordable a habit to sustain that a £100 heroin or crack habit. Many rough sleepers have substance misuse problems and it would take far less time to beg for £5 in the busy city centre streets than it would to buy a few rocks of crack cocaine."
Ralphs said the psychoactive substances bill was expected to "lead to a reduction in the overall availability of NPS" in the UK, but a blackmarket would replace it, and users would find ways to sustain their habits.
He said many NPS users and drugs dealers had already told him that "stockpiling" of legal highs was already taking place with shops offering deals on bulk purchases and "discounted sales which would appear to be facilitating the stockpiling process".
Ralphs said: "Many users I have spoken to have discussed stockpiling both to ensure their own supply but also in anticipation that once the sale of these substances are prohibited in April, that the demand will lead to a doubling or more of the price."
He said there was "a precedent for this" with the average price of mephedrone reportedly doubling from £10 per gram before it was banned in April 2010, to £20 in surveys conducted the following year.
"So I would imagine, at least for the first year or so (whilst stockpiles last) the availability will still be there but at a premium," Ralphs hypothesised.
He said rough sleepers had also told him a "street level market" was already well-established and operated when shops selling NPS were closed and "this will simply expand".
Another group of NPS users researchers will focus on are gay men involved in the chemsex scene - where the main drugs being used are crystal mephamphetamine, mephedrone and GHB/GBL - as these substances are already illegal, but widely available. Ralphs: "So again, we can see that a street level market is already well established for some types of NPS."
Ralphs said the Act would have "little impact" on this sector of this community, and potentially the wider community as a whole - beyond closing down legal high shops.
"If we look at the international evidence then we see that similar blanket bans of the sale of NPS in Ireland and Poland have led to little impact, within a year or two the levels of reported NPS use in these countries have been at similar or higher levels than they were before the ban.
"More locally, there is recent evidence in the North West of England where ‘headshops’ have been closed down, the owners of these shops have simply resorted to selling the same products on the nearby streets."
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