Tox Tuesday: European prisons crack down on ‘legal highs’

Spice_BehindBars1Recent reports from multiple European prisons are showing that while the use of illegal drugs continues to decrease inside prison walls, “legal highs” and the violence associated with them, remains on the rise.

Referred to as “legal highs” due to their synthetic make-up, these drugs are chemically engineered to generate similar effects that illegal substances like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy produce. However, because new varieties of these drugs can be made be made by tinkering with the chemistry of each substance, legal highs have been difficult to test for and regulate especially inside the prison system.

According to one article, Spice is becoming the “drug of choice” among inmates in British prisons, and is just one of a growing multitude of brand names for synthetic cannabis. The drug is designed so it has a structure similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis. In fact, Spice binds to the same receptors in the brain as marijuana and produces a similar “high.”  It is legal to possess outside prison, but banned inside, along with other recreational substances.

Spice, sometimes referred to as Black Mamba, is not detected in routine drug testing and has presented a “cause for concern” in more than one third of the jails inspected, according to an annual report from Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. In fact, some varieties of Spice-style drugs are shown to bind more strongly to brain receptors than natural cannabinoids, potentially explaining reports of unpredictable effects, such as heart palpitations, anxiety and acute psychosis, another article states.

Last year’s Global Drug Survey, which surveys users about their experiences, suggested that users of synthetic cannabis were seven times more likely to need hospital treatment than those smoking the traditional form of the drug. Spice is also said to be in such high demand that prisoners can build up debts to their suppliers, which then leads to violence and bullying when they cannot repay their loans.

This, according to Hardwick, has fueled growing levels of violence behind bars and has resulted in the numbers of serious assaults rising 38% in 2013 and the suicide rate increasing 68%, reaching a 10-year high.

As noted in the annual report, Spice is also responsible for a dramatic increase in “incidents of height,” which nearly doubled from 591 reported cases in 2012-2013, to 1,007 at the end of 2014. “Incidents of height” refer to inmates climbing up on netting or railings in the hope they will be taken to segregation units and then “shipped out” of the prison to a safer jail.

This spread of legal highs within Europe’s prison system has led Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, to announce new guidance to prisons requiring them to extend their mandatory drug testing regime to uncontrolled substances including legal highs or new psychoactive substances, and some prescription drugs.

Regardless of illegal substances in question, new, additional powers were granted to the criminal courts early in 2015 which allow prosecution, additional days in prison, segregation, “closed visits” and a range of other potential penalties for those who are found to have or be under the influence of “legal highs.”

According to an article, the government will also train new specialist dog teams to search and detect these synthetic drugs in prisons. More than 530 dogs are currently used in prisons in England and Wales to search cells for hidden drugs, as well as patrol perimeters and prevent drugs from being smuggled in by visitors.

A publicity drive inside prisons will also warn offenders of the consequences they will face if they attempt to smuggle legal highs into their cells or are found to have taken the drugs. The most serious cases could see prisoners moved to a higher security prison or prosecuted.

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