How cannabis prohibition created a monster in UK Prisons


This is a guest blog by Josh Torrance


Synthetic Cannabinoids (SCs), commonly referred to by some of the more popular brand names they have been sold under including ‘Spice’, ‘K2’ and ‘Black Mamba’ have – in a very short space of time - overtaken heroin and cannabis to become the most commonly used drugs in UK prisons. They are synthetically manufactured substances that are chemically related to, and mimic some effects of THC in cannabis, but are substantially more potent, toxic and risky. Since the appearance of JWH-018 in 2008 (the first SC detected in a ‘legal high’ product) more than 160 different variants have been identified by the EMCDDA. One of the problems with trying to address issues relating to SC use is that they are not a single substance but an array of related substances that have different effects and risk profiles.   


Whilst SC use has become a problem – particularly amongst some homeless and socially deprived populations, the rise of use in prisons has been particularly dramatic. In the past 5 years, seizures of the drugs within prisons have skyrocketed from 15 in 2010 to 737 in 2014. In a survey of 625 prisoners, User Voice found a third of respondents admitted to using SCs within the last month - with prisoners themselves estimating user rates to be even higher. The explosion in the use of SCs in prisons has directly corresponded to an upsurge of related health and behavioural problems. Deaths in custody are up from 192 in 2012 to 257 in 2015. Assaults have risen from 14,551 to 20,518 in the same period, not to mention the parallel increase in problems such as drug debts and prisoner intimidation.



Using SCs has a number of well-known risks that are far more serious than the herbal or resin cannabis that it has largely displaced; these include psychotic episodes, heart attacks and seizures – which can be fatal. Data from the 2016 Global Drugs Survey found that:


  • Synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to lead to emergency medical treatment than any other drug

  • 1 in 8 of those using weekly or more often reported seeking emergency medical treatment (3.5% of all drug users surveyed)

  • Overall occurrence of seeking emergency medical treatment when using SCs is 30 times greater than with ‘skunk’ cannabis

  • Over half of those using more than 50 times in last year who tried to stop reported withdrawal symptoms


Despite these risks SCs have become an attractive option for prisoners who use drugs. They are relatively cheap, widely available, hard to detect and easy to smuggle. They have had (until recently) an ambiguous legal status (see below), and offer an escape from the misery and tedium of life inside a locked cell for up to 22 hours a day.



Many SCs were, for a period of time, effectively legal to possess and sell. Bans on each successive generation of  SC simply led to the emergence of a new generation, with slightly differing molecular designs that escaped the law. The UK Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is responsible for designating whether emerging drugs should be prohibited. It has acknowledged that second and third generation SCs – which the ACMD’s previous bans were responsible for bringing to the market – were increasingly potent and risky. They have effectively conceded that not only were the bans ineffective, they were actively making the products on the market more dangerous. This was of course an entirely predictable outcome, and a pattern we have seen repeated throughout the history of prohibition.  


The ambiguous legal status of SCs has however, at least until this year, contributed to their relative attraction for prisoners, when compared to drugs banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) - most obviously cannabis - which could attract prosecutions, extended sentences and other penalties if discovered.  

The legal status of SCs remains confused – and somewhat absurd. As noted, a number of first and second generation SCs were prohibited as Class B drugs under the MDA; these are illegal to possess (maximum sentence; 5 years in prison), or supply (maximum sentence; 14 years in prison). Many more, not yet brought within by the MDA, were effectively legal to possess and supply, but have since been caught in the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) dragnet that prohibits all psychoactive substances by default (except for alcohol, tobacco and caffeine). Possession of SCs prohibited under the PSA are not subject to criminal penalties for possession outside of prison, but are subject to criminal penalties for possession in prison (although with lesser penalties as those banned under MDA - despite being almost indistinguishable).  


It is a bizarrely cruel and iniquitous bit of law making (and something Transform and Release vigorously objected to during the drafting of the legislation), particularly given the attraction of using SCs in prison to escape the misery of being there. It is ridiculously impractical too; no one would know – without expensive sophisticated forensic testing - whether possession of a particular SC should be prosecuted under the PSA (2 years prison) or MDA (5 years prison) – and therefore whether the sentence should be cruel and unfair, or extremely cruel and unfair.


Up until recently, there was no drug test to identify SCs in the system, making it an attractive option for prisoners, who are required to undergo a Mandatory Drug Testing program. Whilst testing positive on a drugs test outside of prison is not a criminal offense (only possession is criminalised), prisoners are liable to be charged under separate prison rules if they fail the tests. In an interesting new development, drug testing company Alere have, in conjunction with the Home Office, introduced an instant test for synthetic cannabinoids in prisons. Details on its accuracy, effectiveness and impacts  are not available yet, but anecdotal evidence does not point to any notable change of supply within prisons. Prisoner focus groups have raised concerns over potential future price increases resulting in increased violence but no drop in use.


‘Tough’ new enforcement responses are doomed to failure just like all the other attempts to prevent drug use in prisons in the past. Even in a place where prohibition would seem to be most achievable, it is clear that when demand and a profit opportunity exists, supply will alway find a way to meet it. Combine miserable, bored inmates (over half of whom have drug dependencies), well connected gangsters, poorly paid, threadbare staff and an overcrowded prison system - and you have a situation in which a thriving drugs market becomes inevitable.


Corrupt prison staff are known to charge £500 to smuggle packages the size of “three tennis balls” and criminals are now using drones to fly drugs directly over prison walls. SCs are highly concentrated and particularly easy to conceal. For example, paper that has been soaked in SCs can be sent as letters, which can then be smoked.  59% of prisoners who used SCs reported that, amongst other reasons, they used the drug because it was easy to access. These factors, in combination with its addictive nature driving demand for the drug, make SCs a deadly problem for UK prisons. Former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has called SCs “the most serious threat to the safety and security of jails”.


It seems obvious that if prisoners were not in fear of legal repercussions from doing so, many would choose to use cannabis instead – most users claim to prefer it, and it is undoubtedly less risky. Cannabis use results in less hospitalisation, less addiction and less violence.  As a harm reduction strategy, some form of decriminalisation/tolerance of cannabis seems an attractive proposition if it displaced the growing problems associated with SCs. What seems like a politically explosive idea is actually not so alien. There is a long history of prison staff and governors informally tolerating cannabis in prisons – which they view as less problematic than other drugs - even having a calming effect on prisoners.  The idea of providing substitute drugs as part of a harm reduction strategy is also formalised through the extensive provision of prescribed methadone in prisons for dependent heroin users. Although not yet in the UK – many prisons even have needle and syringe exchange programs for people who inject drugs. The UNODC, WHO, UNAIDS guidelines recommend such provision as best practice. If it is OK to provide clean needles and prescribed opiates – is tolerating cannabis use to address the SCs crisis really such a leap?


While this debate continues, there are a number of things that could be quickly and easily done that would likely decrease many of the problems relating to SCs. As detailed in the excellent report ‘High stakes’ by George McBride, we need to move away from counterproductive mandatory testing, scale up provision of treatment services, and address the boredom which is driving demand.


In the longer term we need to ask why so many non-violent offenders are ending up in prison in the first place. Alternatives to prison are cheaper, more effective at reducing offending rates, and have wide public support. Using punishment and enforcement to deal with a health and social problem simply doesn’t work – inside or outside of prisons. But the role of prohibition in driving the prisons crisis cannot be ignored. Along with the 10-20% of prisoners who are jailed for drugs related offenses there are the 50% of the remainder who are inside for crimes related to their involvement in the drugs market or fundraising to buy drugs.


Cannabis prohibition created the opportunity for the emergent SCs market to exploit. Wider prohibition has filled our prisons with vulnerable and socially marginalised populations who are now using downright dangerous SCs to escape the misery of their incarceration. Prohibition created this monster. Ending it has to be a part of the longer term solution.

Edited by Steve Rolles