Inside monkey dust endemic still suffocating Stoke-on-Trent

The Tiktok video of a man in a wheelie bin filmed in Hanley
-Credit: (Image: @euseb1ufota)

In 2010, Stoke-on-Trent City Council's worst-case scenario came true. More than £20 million was slashed from its budget for the following year by an austerity-happy government.

The council predicted this would be detrimental to the local population, with its high levels of deprivation and public-sector jobs. The cuts continued the following year which is also when Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University, first became aware of reports about ‘monkey dust’, a psychoactive drug, in Stoke-on-Trent.

It won’t have been long before this when someone – Sumnall understandably doesn’t like using the word ‘entrepreneur’, but for lack of a better word, one of those – decided they wanted to source and distribute drugs locally.

READ: Dad-of-seven living in tent: 'My monkey dust addiction made me lose everything' - Monkey dust addicts across the city share their harrowing stories in a new BBC documentary

READ: Monkey dust addict Bambi: 'I have to have a bong just to get out of bed' - Monkey dust users in the city have shared their harrowing stories in a new BBC documentary

“It’s very difficult to compete against organised crime groups responsible for the heroin and crack cocaine trades, and they’re also very violent markets, so you don’t want to step on their toes,” Sumnall told The Stoke-on-Trent Lead.

So, perhaps this entrepreneur sensed there was an opportunity with a stimulant drug, as other gangs weren’t dealing them, and they weren’t getting much attention from police at the time, Sumnall says. This entrepreneur landed on a group of drugs classified as monkey dust, which is either snorted, smoked using a pipe, or injected.

“It was a ready-made opportunity that stemmed from there,” Sumnall says. “When you have a relatively small but regular purchasing target group you’re pretty much guaranteed regular income from that group, particularly if it’s associated with binge or repeated use, or a drug of dependence."

Dad-of-seven Paul says monkey dust addiction 'made me lose everything' -Credit:BBC
Dad-of-seven Paul says monkey dust addiction 'made me lose everything' -Credit:BBC

This one ‘business decision’ was all it took to create the monkey dust endemic in Stoke-on-Trent that has become a microcosm of austerity Britain.

Over the next few years, the political climate stayed on the entrepreneur’s side. Before the Covid pandemic, Stoke-on-Trent was the 14th most deprived district in England out of 317 districts, and had one of the highest rates of low-skilled, low-paid employment.

Demand for monkey dust can easily proliferate in communities such as Stoke-on-Trent because it’s cheaper compared to other drugs that are imported from other countries, says Nuno Albuquerque an addictions counsellor at the UK Addiction Treatment Centre.

The monkey media circus:

The first reference to ‘monkey dust’ in British news was an article in November 2012 in The Sentinel. A 42-year-old Sneyd Green man was caught with monkey dust - just a day after helping to steal a motorbike from the Greyhound pub, in Yarlet.

And from the off, it linked the use of the drug to violence. There were - and still are – claims that it can turn people into zombies, gives them superhuman strength, and causes them to act unpredictably.

Monkey dust user Bambi shares his story in the latest episode of BBC Three's Drugs Map of Britain -Credit:BBC
Monkey dust user Bambi shares his story in the latest episode of BBC Three's Drugs Map of Britain -Credit:BBC

The same sort of language was also used to describe the behaviour of users of spice in Manchester around 2017.

Suggesting people on a certain drug become superhuman is a common reporting trope dating back to the 1930s, Sumnall says, when reports linked Black Americans who used drugs such as cannabis with superhuman strength that legitimised a powerful police response.

There have been bizarre – and unfounded – reports linking monkey dust use with people eating through glass windows, chewing rocks until their mouths bleed, and throwing themselves off rooftops.

“It characterises these individuals and populations as violent, and raises fear in the public and in service providers, including the police, ambulance and drug treatment services, and says that this is a group that should be responded to with punishment, blame and exclusion,” Sumnall says.

Some of the psychological effects of monkey dust do include increased levels of anxiety, psychosis and paranoia, says Albuquerque. But while it has an effect on how people behave, he says, it doesn’t give anyone extra powers. And while monkey dust can lead to aggressive behaviour by triggering anxiety and paranoia, this can happen when someone drinks a lot of alcohol, too, Albuquerque adds.

Jamie, 23, had been using monkey dust for a year when the BBC started filming its documentary series 'Drugs Map of Britain' -Credit:BBC
Jamie, 23, had been using monkey dust for a year when the BBC started filming its documentary series 'Drugs Map of Britain' -Credit:BBC

National media coverage tends to focus on the impact of monkey dust, rather than asking why Stoke-on-Trent has been so disproportionately affected, Sumnall says – including the BBC’s recent Drugs Map of Britain episode on monkey dust in the city.

This ‘unrepresentative, somewhat distorted, incomplete and simplified’ reporting by the media, researchers say, is dehumanising and criminalising and can further stigmatise marginalised groups and worsen inequality.

“It’s disappointing that the reporting doesn’t focus on the fundamental structural and social issues,” Sumnall says.

The reality:

Away from the headlines, there’s not much known about the drug – or concrete information about how it got to the city. Lou Macari, founder of the Macari Foundation and its homeless hostel, in Stoke, says that there are still many questions, and no answers, as to how monkey dust came to the city.

“I’m baffled – it seems to have originated here, of all places, and the authorities can’t get to the bottom of where it’s come from and how it’s made,” he says. Finding out could help to cut off the supply, he says.

“I’ve seen first-hand the damage it does. I thought long before now we’d be further advanced in understanding it,” he says. “But there’s not a great deal of information for such a dangerous drug.”

However, researchers have started looking into the impacts that monkey dust is having in Stoke-on-Trent. Last year, the city council commissioned researchers from Staffordshire University to speak to people in the community about their experiences. They spoke to 13 people who have taken the drug, and most said it has had a detrimental effect on their mental health, including exacerbating psychosis and paranoia. It was also linked to feelings of sexual confidence and an increased sex drive, and concerns were raised about ‘a dark side not talked about’ relating to sexual violence against women.

The researchers also spoke to nine members of the community, who said ‘monkey dust’ is perceived to be more negative than other drugs, and, subsequently, perceived users to pose more of a threat to them. Further interviews with professionals from the council, drug and alcohol services, the criminal justice system, housing providers, and homeless services revealed that they see the situation getting worse. They said that the phrase ‘monkey dust’ is sometimes used to exclude people from services – which not only affects users, but their families and friends, too.

Shannon, 27, says her life has been ruined by monkey dust – and she’s never used it. In 2019, she got into a relationship with her ex just one month after he’d been released from prison, and while he was recovering from an addiction to monkey dust and crack cocaine. Three months into their relationship, he relapsed on monkey dust.

“That was the night he fractured my eye socket in two places with one punch,” Shannon says. "The hospital said there was significant damage and I’d need hospital treatment for up to a year.”

He attacked her numerous times, usually when he’d taken monkey dust, she says.

“Every time he went on a ‘bender’, I’d pray it would be crack he smoked and not dust because I knew if it was dust, when he got back it would be bad,” she says. “When he was on monkey dust he genuinely didn’t care. He’d come in extremely paranoid, searching my house for ‘men’ he could hear. He pulled knives out on children and robbed them to fund his monkey dust habit, he even sold his phone that had the only photos of his son and daughter together on it to a dealer.”

It cost less than £2 for a hit of monkey dust.

“Considering it’s a drug I’ve never taken, it’s ruined my life and cost my son his dad, because as long as he’s addicted to monkey dust, my son has no dad.”

What’s being done to help?

Jack Brereton, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, has spoken about reclassifying monkey dust from a Class B to a Class A drug – mentioning, alongside his plea, a host of the unfounded behaviours associated with its use. But it’s been a class B drug for the last 14 years, which still comes with the risk of being fined or sentenced to time in prison, Sumnall points out.

“It’s more a message to the public to be seen as acting tougher and doing something, rather than making a difference,” he says.

If the government was going to take meaningful action, it would put more money into prevention and treatment services instead, experts argue.

“The specific drug doesn’t matter, the issue is that this is a highly vulnerable population at the short end of social exclusion,” Sumnall says. “The reason there’s such an issue with monkey dust is because of cuts to drug treatment services, and the decline in the quality and availability of mental health services. It’s been almost a perfect storm in Stoke on Trent.”

Thankfully, some funding has come the city’s way. In July 2022, Stoke-on-Trent City Council was allocated £5 million to improve drug and alcohol treatment, and it has focused its efforts on monkey dust. And last August, homelessness charity Concrete secured funding to deliver specialist support to users of psychoactive substances including monkey dust across Stoke-on-Trent, which it used to improve access to accommodation for users, and hire specialist workers to improve treatment.

But this funding is all just a ‘plaster,’ says Sumnall, following more than a decade of austerity cuts. Between 2013/14 and 2023/24 Stoke-on-Trent spent 56 per cent less on drug and alcohol treatment and it’s unclear what services still exist locally, and which ones have been cut. On top of this, the council is currently facing unprecedented financial struggles.

Last year, a Vice article on monkey dust referenced the drugs service Humankind, saying that it operated services in Stoke-on-Trent. But the service has told me, in the same email chain, that it no longer has any services in the area, and that it hasn’t previously supported people in the area.

However, if there was more money, this could mean more effective drug treatment so that services could try to address other issues perpetuating the monkey dust problem in Stoke-on-Trent, such as social exclusion and housing, Sumnall says.

“Addressing the causes is important: childhood adversity, local deprivation – early access to appropriate and high quality services is important. A common feature of the experiences of people who need drug treatment is multiple vulnerabilities and a long history of these vulnerabilities not being addressed properly by services and wider society.”

And there needs to be more than just drop-in services, Albuquerque says.

“If you’re just investing in drop-in services you’re shooting yourself in the foot because these people are high risk and will continue to use,” he says. Instead, users need residential treatment with a medical detox to start with to stabilise the person, he says, followed by talking therapies. But there also needs to be support in place for when treatment ends, he adds.

“We need to take a systemic approach to the problem, because if we’re just taking them to residential treatment without a plan for housing, employment and childcare we’re not doing a good job.”

If the root causes aren’t addressed, new drugs will come and go, Sumnall says, and in five years from now a new drug will have taken the place of monkey dust, fuelled by the same underlying issues.

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