The 'Russian roulette' drug tearing apart homeless lives

By John Owen
Victoria Derbyshire programme

Media caption,
The potent drug causing deaths among the homeless

A highly potent strain of the illegal drug Spice is said to have returned to Manchester, and to be causing devastation and even deaths among the city's homeless community.

"Just one pull, and I was out for five hours. I couldn't get myself back together. It was very scary," explains one rough sleeper on the streets of Manchester.

He did not want to be named but said he had been smoking what he had been led to believe was an ordinary roll-up.

He was unaware it contained a potent strain of the illegal drug Spice - a synthetic cannabinoid that mimics the effects of cannabis.

Spice was previously known as one of the so-called "legal highs", before being banned along with other psychoactive substances in May 2016.

The man says he knows other homeless people who have died as a result of taking the drug - a story echoed by charities, who believe it has taken hold of Manchester's rough sleeping population.

Walking around Piccadilly Gardens - at the edge of Manchester's Northern Quarter - in the early evening, men and women can be seen collapsed in doorways of fast food restaurants and chain stores, or doubled over - as if frozen to the spot - among commuters and shoppers.

Near where one organisation is distributing food to rough sleepers, the distinctively acrid, almost chemical smell of Spice is present.

Julie Boyle, from the charity Lifeshare, estimates that "between 95% and 98% [of her clients] are smoking Spice in some form.

"It's very, very unusual to find a young person who's homeless in city centre Manchester who isn't taking Spice," she says.

"We've got people coming in [to the charity drop-ins] who are absolutely as white as a ghost, can't string a sentence together.

Image caption,
Julie Boyle says the drug is leaving users vulnerable to abuse

"We've had a man who was actually [pronounced medically dead] outside in an alleyway. We put him in an ambulance and he was resuscitated, he went to A and E, and three hours later he was back in town buying more Spice.

"That'll give you an indication of how addictive Spice is."

Ms Boyle says the drug is also leaving users vulnerable to abuse.

"We've had people who have been gang-raped, people who have been forced to do sex work," she explains.

Image caption,
Dr Oliver Sutcliffe says new forms of Spice are "significantly more potent"

Dr Oliver Sutcliffe from Manchester Metropolitan University - one of the UK's leading experts on Spice - believes the latest samples of cannabinoids are "significantly more potent than the other previous generations".

He says that among samples tested by his unit, the strength of those from the street has stabilised recently, but stressed that the variation in potency means that users are taking immense risks by using the drug.

"It's almost like putting a loaded gun to your head and playing Russian roulette," he explains.

Dr Sutcliffe says the ban on so-called "legal highs" in the UK, introduced in 2016, has meant users do not know what the drugs they are buying contain.

"Before the ban, the samples used to come in packets which had information on the back [about] what was in them.

"What you're seeing now on the streets are samples that are in very non-descript [see-through] snap bags. So you don't know what synthetic cannabinoid you've got in the sample, and you don't know how strong they are."

Dr Sutcliffe's colleague, Dr Robert Ralphs, believes it is also easier to access Spice now than before the ban.

"We hear homeless people saying they're being woken up in the morning by dealers giving them a bag or two, and then they'll come back later after they've earned some money begging and get the money from them," he explains.

The Home Office has not yet responded to a request for comment.

'Unable to talk'

Speaking to those who have daily conversations with Spice users, there are fears that a stronger strain may have entered circulation.

Official figures show that in 2016 there were 27 cases in which synthetic cannabinoids were mentioned on death certificates, but some believe the drug could be linked to many more fatalities.

One of those is Risha Lancaster from the charity Coffee4Craig, which supports rough sleepers in the city.

While speaking in Piccadilly Gardens, she is able to point out several Spice dealers in the vicinity.

"We've known people who we suspected died through taking Spice, but because the medical professions don't know what's in it, they can't pinpoint that as a cause of death. They have to say their heart stopped, or pneumonia or something like that was the cause of death."

Image caption,
Risha Lancaster believes Spice has resulted in more deaths than is suggested by official figures

Ch Insp Gareth Parkin, of Greater Manchester Police, said the force was "absolutely committed" to tackling spice use and dealing in Manchester city centre.

"In Piccadilly Gardens alone we have arrested 52 people for possession of Spice with intent to supply since January," he added.

Ms Lancaster says she has seen first-hand the catastrophic effects the drug can have.

"We knew a particular gentleman who was alcoholic. He was passed a joint - didn't know Spice was in it - took a couple of puffs and fell to the ground and he ended up dying a week later.

"One particular gentleman we've known for a very long time is now in a nursing home - he can't talk, he can't live his own life, all through taking Spice."

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