I’ve worked in the drug and criminal justice sector for 20 years now and have never seen a drug as potent and easy to get as spice. Drugs like heroin and crack cocaine are powerful substances but spice is much cheaper and easier to use. You can just roll a joint and be completely knocked out.
The government reclassified the drug from a legal high to a Class B substance in 2017 in a bid to curb its use. But here in Sheffield this has moved its trade to the black market. It’s now stronger than ever and dealers have targeted it at vulnerable people who are often homeless.
Its prevalence in prisons also means the link between criminality and drug use is becoming stronger. In prison, people call spice ‘Bird Killer’. ‘Bird’ refers to the sentence they’re serving and spice helps them get away from that reality. The drug offers the kind of oblivion that is unbelievably tempting when you are locked in a cell for hours on end. We are now seeing some people go into prison having never used spice and come out with a spice issue.
As spice use has become more visible so have the degrading ‘zombie’ videos that regularly do the rounds on social media. While I understand seeing someone in that kind of state can scare and frustrate people, videoing it only serves to alienate the person in question even more.
That’s why the motto that governs our work is ‘treat the person not the substance’. My aim is to get know people, what makes them tick, rather than defining them by the drug they’re using. This makes it easier to understand some of their more challenging behaviours.
A sad fact is the cycle of poverty and drug use means many people exist only in the present, struggling to see past the next few hours. That’s why ‘quick wins’ are important for developing relationships. Getting them a sandwich or topping their electric meter may mean they keep coming back.
We have to run a service organised through appointments and carefully managed calendars. One joint of spice can take out three, four or even five people, and upend our whole day. It’s also just really tough to meaningfully engage with a person on spice. Someone on heroin can often maintain a conversation but spice is another kettle of fish.
People sometimes ask me what keeps me going in the job. I think it’s my personal experience of drug use. I was a prolific heroin and crack cocaine user and had been written off by most services as a lost cause. But the support of a few key people helped me turn my life around. I now try and extend the same helping hand that I received.
But what can we do? Spice, like any drug, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a reaction to trauma, an inability to face the day and the pain that comes with it. Austerity has made many vital services less accessible. Mental health waiting lists are longer, prisons are understaffed and affordable housing is in short supply.
Spice has no waiting list, no forms to fill in and it’s cheap as chips. If it’s too painful to be in your head, if you haven’t got people to help you start again, then it’s an addictively effective anaesthetic.
Until we address why so many more people are looking to escape reality, it’s going to get worse.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Frank drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org