Just over four years ago, I led a Westminster Hall debate on government policy on legal highs following a number of problems in our town centre. I worked with a number of organisations and with MPs across the House and legal highs were eventually banned completely in Early 2016. I led a campaign with local shopkeepers against the Reefer shop on Knifesmithgate, which was accused of selling legal highs and was seen as a focal point for much of the trouble in town which contributed towards that closing. There was an immediate improvement and this part of the town became a less intimidating space for visitors.
Unfortunately, over the couple of years, we have seen a growing problem with the drugs ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. Spice and Mamba are known as ‘synthetic cannabinoid’ substances that are supposed to mimic the effects of cannabis. Spice has been dubbed the “zombie drug” due to the debilitating effect it has on people. If you have been unfortunate enough to witness someone on Spice, it can be very alarming as they do look like they have just stepped out of an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’. Users will often be seen in a slumped, semi-conscious state often with their bodies posed in alarming and contorted shapes and their behaviour can be very unpredictable.
The short term effects of Spice are known and can include paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, kidney problems and breathing difficulties. The long term effects simply aren’t known yet but could lead to significant mental and physical health problems. This is not just an issue of crime and antisocial behaviour, but a public health issue that has serious implications for the individual users, and a knock-on effect for families, communities and emergency services. We have seen a six-fold increase in the past year in the number of ambulance call-outs to people who are on synthetic cannabinoids. The East Midlands Ambulance Service is already under a great deal of pressure and I have been contacted by several people who have had to wait several hours for an ambulance following serious accidents. This added pressure due to Spice users is the last thing needed by our ambulance service and over-stretched A&E department.
And this is the crux of why people feel so passionately about this issue – Spice, and similar substances, are having a massive impact on users and people right across Chesterfield. Users quickly become psychologically (not chemically) dependent on Spice and seeking out the drug becomes the sole purpose in their life. These people are victims and vulnerable people, with many of them being rough sleepers or having mental health issues, but their actions impact on a huge number of other people. Many people are frightened to go into the centre of our towns because of the impact of Spice users and the alarming state that people get themselves into on these drugs.
Over the last few years we have seen a growing homeless community in Chesterfield, with Spice becoming the main drug of choice amongst this group. Spice is very cheap compared to other drugs and, partly due to the low cost and its Class B status, very easy to get hold of. I recently met with Sian Jones, manager of homelessness prevention charity Pathways, who told me that many users do not realise just how dangerous and potent the drug is when they first start using, and they become dependent on the drug before they realise the damage it is doing.
Spice users are having a big impact on our town centre businesses and retailers. Retailers trying to run their businesses in tough times have contacted me, saying they have people under the influence of these drugs in contorted positions in their shop doorways, forcing customers away and impacting on sales.
Hardyal Dhindsa, the Police & Crime Commissioner for Derbyshire, together with our hard working local police, have put a huge amount of effort into trying to clamp down on these drugs.
Hardyal introduced Operation Chesnee, which led to 70 arrests and a spate of convictions. At least 40 people have now been charged, and convictions are ongoing. Derbyshire police have put significant resource into cracking down on Spice and Mamba, but while they are class B drugs, there is a limit to the resources they can put in and the returns they can get. Hardyal also chairs regular town centre summits, which are attended by police, probation, Chesterfield Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council, substance misuse services and local businesses, to discuss how we can work together to address the issues affecting our town centre. Public Space Protection Orders are already in place and being used to combat Spice users in town and the police and drug support services are working closely together to ensure people are being offered the help they need.
Now I have responded to the call from Hardyal and other Police chiefs to get these substances re-classified as class A drugs and spoke in a recent Parliamentary debate to that effect.
I am not seeking to criminalise the users of these drugs, many of whom need help and support for a variety of issues, but the reclassification will help the police to target the dealers higher up the supply chain who are making a lot of money and who are responsible for the devastating impact these drugs are having on users and communities. Reclassification will mean tougher sentences for dealing, which will hopefully disincentivise people from selling the drug.
Reclassification will not be a silver bullet in resolving this new threat to our communities and we will need the Government to provide more resources for policing, increase the provision of drug treatment services and tackle the growing homelessness crisis which is leaving so many people in a vulnerable state where the use of drugs is the only way of coping with life on the street, but it can play a part.
You can watch my speech on this issue from last week’s Westminster Hall debate the on Reclassification of Synthetic Cannabinoids below.