The Government ban on “legal highs” has only made it easier for some addicts to get hold of the highly addictive drugs that can cause seizures and psychotic episodes, users and drugs workers say.
One legal high user in Bradford said underground dealers have filled the gap left by the head shops, which closed as a result of the ban imposed in May. So now, instead of having to travel three miles outside the city centre to the head shop used before the ban, addicts can allegedly get legal highs delivered “like a takeaway” from criminal dealers in the middle of Bradford itself.
In central London, there are reports of pushers starting to offer special cut-price deals to homeless legal high addicts. These, it is feared, are likely to increase the kind of legal high usage that charity workers say has caused drug-related deaths amongst the capital’s street sleepers.
In other areas, legal highs, also known as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), have become harder to obtain since the Psychoactive Substances Act introduced jail sentences for suppliers.
But in the North-east, one of the areas that have historically been hardest hit by legal highs, a Newcastle drugs worker warned that a rise in street prices caused by the ban almost certainly meant that some users were “just doing more crime" to get the money.
Centrepoint workers in the region say the continuing problems with legal highs are another reason why a national Young and Homeless Helpline of the kind being campaigned for by the youth homelessness charity and The Independent is so vital.
Sue, a health officer for Centrepoint in Sunderland, said if there was a sympathetic voice at the end of a Freefone helpline number, it could be the early intervention that stops young people getting on the downward spiral caused by legal highs. “Somebody will be able to talk to that young person about how they are feeling. They will be able to tell them: ‘You don’t need to need that drug to help you sleep or to block out memories – there are other things you can do’.”
Although wealthier drug users started rejecting legal highs like the synthetic cannabinoid Spice as “cheap and nasty” well before the Government ban, the drugs have become particularly problematic among the young homeless.
Centrepoint case workers say young people made homeless by issues like family breakdown or mental illness may turn to legal highs through peer pressure or to get a cheap, momentary escape from the reality of their situation. But despite being pushed as mimicking the effects of cannabis, legal highs like Spice can cause seizures, paranoid delusions and psychotic episodes. Users also say such legal highs are more addictive than heroin.
Centrepoint workers talk of some of the heaviest users resorting to crime to fund their habits and getting trapped in a cycle of homelessness and prison. Other young homeless users, they say, risk being lured into financial or sexual exploitation by dealers who have got them heavily in debt.
But in Bradford, Carrie (not her real name), a 19-year-old being cared for by Centrepoint, said that although the ban succeeded in closing down the open sale via high street head shops, iIt went underground – the dealers are now selling it”.
She said: “It seems easier to get legal highs now. The head shop was quite far away, in Tong [a suburb about three miles outside Bradford city centre]. Now you can just walk down the road to get it. Or ring a dealer from a payphone. They’ve got their numbers carved into them [now]. You ring them up and tell them what you want. It’s become easier.”
Carrie is only an occasional legal high user. She said, however, that her 17-year-old girlfriend was spending £20 to £30 a day on 2g – or 10 joints – of legal highs like Spice, Mamba or Chronic Black Label.
Carrie said her girlfriend initially struggled to find legal highs once the head shop closed, but after about a month, she found a new underground dealer. “As soon as she did, she was so happy she went out and brought a gramme straight away.”
Carrie said her girlfriend has also bought from a Bradford city centre café that started selling legal highs under the counter. She said: “They have them in a back room. You tell them what they want and they get it. It’s basically like getting a takeaway.”
'It's a horrible drug'
Carrie became homeless in July, because of family breakdown. She is now being cared for by Centrepoint in a hostel in Bradford, but her experiences with legal highs have made it much, much harder for her to escape homelessness for good.
She started experimenting before she became homeless, introduced to drugs like Spice and Mamba in January by her 17-year-old girlfriend, a heavy user for some four years.
“I would have seizures, stop breathing,” says Carrie. “I wouldn’t know where I was, forget who I was. It’s a horrible drug.”
But, influenced by her girlfriend, she would still take legal highs occasionally.
“I took some about a month ago. I was delusional. I thought my girlfriend was raping me. I bit her.”
If anything, the long term effects of Carrie’s legal high use have been even more destructive.
“It’s messed with my head,” she says. “I forget what I am doing sometimes. I don’t get much sleep because of what it’s done to me. I’ve lost loads of weights since taking it. Sometimes I have blackouts. I’ve lost the will to make myself look good.”
Centrepoint staff have devised an action plan for Carrie. They praise her strength of character and remain confident that given time, she will turn her life around. But no one can say it will be easy.
Growing up in an everyday sort of family, Carrie had dreamed of a life spent working with animals. Now, though, she admits: “I don’t think about that any more. I feel I’ll never be able to do that.”
Her girlfriend too has begun to realise what the drugs that give her a cheap high are really doing to her.
“She’s begun to realise they’re wrecking her life. But they’re really addictive.”
Nationally, Harry Shapiro, the chief executive of the drugs information charity DrugWise, said that while the ban had closed dozens of head shops and deterred casual interest, there had been no noticeable reduction in consumption among the core group of users.
He said: “Where it remains a problem is among the street homeless, rough sleepers and heroin and crack users – because dealers have now started adding synthetic cannabinoids to their repertoire. Some dealers have started selling synthetic cannabinoids and nothing else.”
In central London, he added, people working with homeless addicts were hearing of pushers offering what were effectively cut-price legal high deals.
“It is said they are not selling by weight or anything like that,” said Mr Shapiro. “They are selling according to whatever you have got in your pocket. If you are street homeless with a couple of quid in your pocket, they will say ‘All right, I will take that, and you can have this [corresponding amount of legal high].
“If the dealers are prepared to sell drugs for what you have got in your pocket, then the chances are that use amongst those [homeless] groups could spread.”
Petra Salva, director of street outreach services at the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said: “Although legal highs have been banned for six months now, this does not seem to have reduced the problem and dangers they present on our streets. Spice in particular is readily available. Our service users report how unsafe it is and have seen many deaths as a result."
In Newcastle, one drugs worker told The Independent the ban had caused the city’s street dealers to raise the price of legal highs from £10 a gramme to £15 or £20. But that, he said, had not stopped homeless addicts using: “God no. You just do more crime, don’t you? If they are living on benefits, they will stop eating; if they are offending, they will offend more. People just tell you ‘I do what I need to do to get it’.”
The closure of head shops, he added, had cut down the visible signs of legal highs: “So the Government will be able to flag this as a howling success, but when you work with people on the streets, you see that banning stuff doesn’t stop its use.
“It’s gone underground, as expected. But the great majority of people don’t care about people living on the streets – if you don’t work with them, you don’t see them. They are brushed under the carpet. They are the ones using these drugs the most, and the ban has made no difference.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Psychoactive Substances Act sends out a clear message – drugs like spice are not legal, they are not safe and we will not allow them to be sold.
“This landmark legislation has given police and local authorities greater powers to stop the trade of these harmful substances. Since it was introduced, hundreds of retailers are no longer selling them, they have been removed from UK websites and police have arrested suppliers.
“Our forthcoming Drugs Strategy will build on this work to prevent drug use in our communities and help dependent individuals, including homeless people, to recover.”
Inspector Mike Bonner, of Bradford District Police, said: "We will be making enquiries with partners to see if they are aware of psychoactive substances being sold in the ways mentioned. Anyone with information about these substances being sold can report it anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555111."
He added: "The Psychoactive Substances Act provided police with greater powers to take action against those who sell or produce these dangerous substances. Officers in Bradford are continuing to enforce the new legislation proportionately.”
How to donate to the Independent’s Christmas Appeal
The Independent’s Homeless Helpline appeal is raising money for the Centrepoint Helpline, a brand new support service that will save young people from ending up on the streets.
To donate you can:
0300 330 2731
HOME66 £5 to 70070
40-42 Phoenix Court