Drug dealers are finding “innovative ways” of circumventing a police crackdown on the sale of the banned drug spice, according to drugs experts.
Academics at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), who are researching the rise of the drug, and local charity workers told the Guardian a shift is occurring in how spice is circulated in Manchester.
Spice, one of the names used for a group of chemicals known as synthetic cannabinoids, is commonly sprayed on plants, such as the marsh mallow plant, before being sold to be smoked.
But there is evidence that dealers are dipping cigarettes in vials of the chemical before selling them, or spraying the chemical on to pieces of paper, such as cigarette papers, which can then be ripped up and added to a joint.
Authorities in Manchester have reported a surge in the use of the highly addictive drug, with research estimating that 90-95% of the city’s homeless population have tried it. Spice was previously legally sold in shops and online, before being banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act in May last year.
While the substance was initially marketed as having effects similar to those of cannabis, experts have said such comparisons were dangerous, as the effects of spice are much more extreme and unpredictable. While there is very little research into the effects the chemicals have on the body, there are multiple reports of people dying after smoking it in the UK.
Ten people were hospitalised in Oldham last month after taking crystallised spice, having mistaken it for the drug MDMA. Greater Manchester police said it was the first time they had seen the drug distributed in that form, and tests showed it was 100% pure. Researchers at MMU have said the dealers who sold the crystallised spice used in the Oldham incident were likely to have been unaware of what they were selling. The researchers said it did not make economic sense to sell such a strong drug in so pure a form, when so much money could be made from diluting it.
Dr Robert Ralphs, a senior lecturer in criminology at MMU, said that while dealers had been caught with hundreds of £5 bags of spice, it was much harder to catch criminals carrying cigarettes or papers laced with the drug. “It’s like anything. People will always find innovative ways of getting around the criminalisation,” he said. “And invariably they tend to be more risky.”
A police source said they were aware that new methods were being used to distribute the drug, as “necessity was the mother of invention”.
Spice use has been a problem in Britain’s prisons for years, helped by the fact it does not show up in routine drug tests. Ralphs said many of the techniques used to distribute the drug to prisoners were now being used on the streets.
“Lots of drugs trends emerge in prisons and then come out into the community,” he said. MMU research published in December 2016 found spice was being sprayed on children’s drawings and letters before being taken into prison and smoked.
The chemical used to make spice is thought to come from China and is comparatively easy to smuggle into the UK because only a tiny amount is needed to have an effect. An investigation by the Sunday People showed the drug could be ordered over the internet at low prices that would allow dealers to make huge profits.