Synthetic Weed Linked to Prison Health Crisis in United Kingdom

By Paul Gaita 06/05/14

Spice and K2 have become a favorite among British prisoners for leaving no trace in drug tests.

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Synthetic cannabis has been attributed to a spate of physical and mental health issues among inmates at 28 prisons in the United Kingdom.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said that the drug, a variety of plant material and chemical additives that produce a psychoactive effect in the user and commonly known under a variety of names like “spice” or “K2,” is abundant in prison populations because it lacks the distinctive smell of genuine marijuana and leaves no trace in drug tests.

“As opiate-based drugs become less popular, spice has become a more favored option,” Hardwick said. “We’ve seen examples where it’s affected people’s hearts and so have had to have emergency treatment. It has [also] affected people’s mental health, and what it seems to do is exacerbate people’s existing condition.” Synthetic cannabis has been mentioned as a factor in countless emergency room visits in the United States, as well as numerous deaths.

The report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons describes inmates undergoing extreme reactions to synthetic cannabis, including seizures, psychosis, and loss of motor control. At one prison in West Yorkshire, 13 prisoners required medical attention after using the drug, including five whose symptoms were so severe that they required hospitalization.

A 2009 government ban on synthetics, including spice, has not halted a steady flow of drugs smuggled behind or, in some cases, thrown over prison walls. Once inside, it becomes the drug of choice for both users and dealers, as evidenced by HM Prison Ford at West Sussex, where drug and alcohol recovery team officials found that 85 percent of its inmates were either using or supplying spice.

The Ministry of Justice has responded by stating that a test for newer psychoactive substances has been proposed, while also seeking expanded power to search inmates for drugs.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.