When Alex first tried spice in 2014, he thought it was cannabis. The 23-year-old had been sleeping on the streets in Manchester after his mum had lost her council house. He was just looking to take his mind off his problems, but at lightning speed he became addicted, buying increasing quantities of the drug to feed his habit.
“I was waking up, buying it, smoking it, going to sleep, waking up, buying it, smoking it, going to sleep again,” he says.
Alex spent about a year addicted to spice, while he was living in tents in the city centre, before kicking the habit near the start of 2016. At the peak of his addiction, he was spending around £200 a week on the drug. “It was horrible,” he says. “Every morning I was waking up being physically sick. I was worn out and tired. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. My bones kept on aching.”
Spice, one of the names used for a group of substances known as synthetic cannabinoids, has been in the UK for more than a decade and was initially marketed as having effects similar to those of cannabis. The highly addictive psychoactive substance, an illegal class B drug since December, induces an inactive state and in recent years has become commonly used among the UK’s homeless population.
Although charities in other big UK cities report spice addiction as an issue among their homeless communities, Manchester’s problem is particularly visible. Between the city’s main train station and Piccadilly Gardens, a transport and shopping hub, it is common to see figures slumped in doorways apparently passed out after smoking the drug.
Earlier this week, Greater Manchester police released figures showing the burden the drug has placed on the city’s emergency services. The force attended 58 spice-related incidents in the city centre on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last week. There were also 23 incidents to which an ambulance was called, and 18 dispersal orders or directions to leave were issued.
Researchers estimate that 90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug. And while there is very little research into the effects of spice on the body, there are scores of reports of people dying after smoking it. “We try and keep our outreach teams away from Piccadilly Gardens,” says Yvonne Hope, operations and resources director at the Manchester-based homelessness charity Barnabus. “It’s so unsafe there now.”
The release of police figures prompted a flurry of media interest in the problem. A series of photographs of homeless spice users in Manchester city centre, some covered in vomit and being helped by emergency services, were published by local and national newspapers. Local charities were critical of the coverage, describing it as dehumanising and sensationalist.
Spice’s main attractions are that it is cheap and strong. It is thought to be imported from China in liquid form, then sprayed on an inert plant such as marshmallow before being sold to be smoked. Only the tiniest amount of the chemical is needed to have an effect.
Alex, who has been helped into supported accommodation by the homelessness charity Depaul UK, is due to start a new job next month. He realised he needed to kick the habit when his former partner refused him access to his daughter. “I went cold turkey,” he says. “I got my cousin to lock me in the back of a van and just leave me there to sweat it out.” The withdrawal symptoms include sweating, vomiting, stomach cramps and headaches, he says.
Standing outside Barnabus’s Beacon drop-in centre – which provides showers, cooked breakfasts and cups of tea to Manchester’s rough sleepers – John and Steve, 52 and 35, agree spice has largely replaced heroin, crack and even alcohol as the drug of choice.
“You can go get a fiver, buy half a gram and it’ll knock you out for a few hours,” says John, who has been homeless since 2014. “It’s better than buying a bottle of White Ace [cider].”
“I have tried heroin and it’s worse than that,” says Steve, adding that friends of his have died after taking spice. The last time he smoked a joint of spice he woke up in a hospital bed, he says. “I don’t touch the stuff any more, it doesn’t agree with me.”
Hope says there has been a rise in crime associated with the drug since it was banned in May last year, with fights breaking out among people who visit the drop-in centre. “Up until about 2015, we had people who were mostly a community and people who respected each other, and spice just seems to have killed that,” she says.
The use of spice has also reached crisis point in Britain’s prisons, helped by the fact that it does not show up in routine drugs tests. Dr Robert Ralphs, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has conducted research into the use of spice in the city, says the drug is used partly because of its ability to make hours pass in what feels like a few minutes. “People have told me they’ve used [spice] for the last two or three years, but that it seems like a couple of months,” he says.
Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, a senior lecturer in psychopharmaceutical chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, says the strength of the drug can vary wildly, which poses serious health risks. Tests on samples of the drug provided by police show the most recent batch to hit the streets in Manchester was 10 times stronger than is usual.
Sutcliffe says that although the packets look the same, they can contain a range of different cannabinoids at varying strengths. “You’re playing Russian roulette,” he adds. The chemicals found in spice in Manchester have been linked to 10 deaths in Japan.
Peter Morgan, a support worker with Depaul UK who is helping Alex in his transition back to work, says there is a need for rehabilitation programmes like those provided for heroin addicts. “Spice is clearly the strongest drug in the country right now,” he says.
Alex agrees with Morgan and swears he will not touch the drug again. He wants to rebuild his life with his girlfriend and hold down his new job. He says he has seen homeless friends in tears because they want to stop using spice. “But they can’t,” he continues. “Because no one’s going to help them do it.”
Some names in this article have been changed.
What is spice?
Spice, or synthetic cannabis, is not a single drug, but a range of laboratory-made chemicals designed to mimic the effects of the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The active substance in spice is mass-produced in underground labs, often in China, and sent to Europe in powder form where suppliers typically spray the chemical on to mixes of herbal leaves that are then sold on. The precise chemical formulation of the drug is constantly shifting, meaning there are potentially hundreds or even thousands of variations available.
The THC in natural cannabis works by travelling through the blood to the brain, where it binds to cannabinoid receptors. The synthetic version does the same thing, but can be 100 times more potent, binding to the receptors more efficiently and in some cases for far longer. This has led to anecdotal reports of people remaining under the “high” of the drug for more than a day.
The precise effects are likely to depend on the chemical formula and, probably more importantly, on the concentration of the substance in the product. Since the drug is sprayed on, even within a single bag of the product there can be highly concentrated “hot spots”. This has made it difficult for scientists to come up with a typical profile of the effects of the drug and associated risks.
The positive short-term effects of spice appear to be approximately similar to that of herbal cannabis: users report feeling warm, happy and relaxed, and sometimes report confusion, paranoia and anxiety. But the adverse effects appear to be more severe and wide-ranging. A characteristic side-effect of smoking cannabis is an increased heart rate and there is some evidence that the cardiovascular effects of synthetic cannabis can be more extreme, with case reports of people having heart attacks and strokes after taking the drug. Cases have also been reported of kidney and liver damage and psychosis.
Little is known about the long-term effects of synthetic cannabis, since these products have only been in widespread recreational use since around 2008.
Hannah Devlin, science correspondent