Pubdate: Mon, 02 May 2016
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Ian Sample


Synthetic Cannabis Has 'Devastating Impact' On Jails, Says Chief Inspector

Synthetic cannabis is having a "devastating impact" in British 
prisons and making it difficult for normal life to continue in some 
facilities, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.

Sold as "spice" and "black mamba", synthetic cannabis has been blamed 
for deaths, serious illness and episodes of self-harm among 
prisoners. Some prison officers have reported falling ill from 
exposure to the fumes.

High demand for the compound has fuelled more severe problems in the 
prison system than officers have faced from any other drug, with 
prisoners racking up greater debts and suffering worse bullying and 
violence, Peter Clarke told the Guardian. "Prison staff have told me 
that the effect on individuals and prisons as a whole is unlike 
anything they have seen before," said Clarke, who took up the post in February.

Synthetic cannabis is an umbrella term for hundreds of chemical 
compounds that mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient of 
cannabis, in the brain. The synthetic forms are often extremely 
potent, making them a greater threat to users and those around them. 
A report from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman last year linked 19 
prison deaths between 2012 and 2014 with synthetic cannabis, by far 
the most common of the new psychoactive substances (NPS).

Unlike traditional resin and weed, synthetic cannabis is manufactured 
in labs and is usually odourless, making it hard for prison staff to 
tell when prisoners are smoking the drugs.

Although NPS is banned in prisons, large quantities of the drugs 
continue to find their way inside.

"NPS is having a devastating impact in some of our prisons, more 
severe than we have seen with other drugs," Clarke said. "Their 
presence in prisons has given rise to debt, bullying and violence. 
They are destabilising some prisons, making it difficult for normal 
prison life to continue.

"Both at local and national level there needs to be clear strategies 
to deal with the supply of these drugs into prisons, and to care for 
those who suffer from their effects," he added. "At the moment the 
situation appears to be getting worse."

The 2015 ombudsman's report urged the prison service to ensure staff 
had more information about synthetic cannabis and the signs that 
prisoners were taking it. It called on governors to put in place 
strategies to reduce the supply of NPS and the violence associated 
with the drugs.

But Steve Gillan, the leader of the Prison Officers Association, said 
the prison service was failing in its duty of care for prisoners and 
prison staff by not adequately dealing with synthetic cannabis. "We 
don't think they, or the government, are taking it seriously enough.

"Our prisons are awash with synthetic cannabis and prisoners are so 
out of their heads, they don't know what they are doing sometimes. 
They are a danger to themselves, they're attacking staff, and they 
are attacking other prisoners."

Gillan said the problem was exacerbated by a shortfall in staff 
needed to perform perimeter checks and thorough searches of prison 
cells and exercise yards.

"We want prisons properly searched because these drugs are getting 
dropped in by drones, catapulted over fences and there are not enough 
staff to deal with it," he added. More sniffer dogs are due to be 
brought into service, but Gillan said it was "too little, too late".

Last year's report from the prisons ombudsman highlighted a number of 
cases of prisoners dying after using synthetic cannabis. The precise 
role that the drugs played is unclear, however.

One man died after apparently smoking spiked cigarettes he had been 
given by inmates who wanted to test a new batch of synthetic 
cannabis. Another man, whose behaviour had previously been 
"exemplary", shouted at a prison doctor, and was found to have hanged 
himself in his cell the next morning. He had recently developed a 
heavy synthetic cannabis habit and had been forced to sell 
possessions to pay off his debts. A woman described as "fun-loving" 
appeared to have a psychotic episode after taking synthetic cannabis, 
and possibly other drugs, and died after she severed an artery in an 
unprecedented act of self-harm.

The Prison Officers Association has begun to compile a dossier on 
incidents where synthetic cannabis is involved. "We are looking at 
various different avenues to make our employer actually wake up and 
smell the coffee," said Gillan.

A prison service spokesperson said governors used sniffer dogs, cell 
searches and mandatory drugs tests to find drugs. The service has 
legislated to make smuggling NPS into prisons illegal. "Those caught 
trying to throw packages over prison walls can now face up to two 
years in jail," the spokesperson said. "However, we must do more, 
which is why we are investing UKP1.3bn to transform the prison 
estate, to better support rehabilitation and tackle bullying, 
violence and drugs."
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