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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The UK drug scene is changing fast

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Almost every area reported a continued rise in the use of new psychoactive substances. The rapid rise in the use of synthetic cannabinoids such as Black Mamba and Exodus Damnation was of particular concern, particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as opiate users, street homeless, prisoners and socially excluded young people. The problematic use of these drugs has featured regularly in prison inspectorate reports over the last year.

More complex and more dangerous

The 2014 DrugScope Street Drug Survey was published on 15 January 2015. It’s always an important survey, but this year has seen more changes than usual, many of them very troubling.

The annual snapshot survey was conducted in December 2014 and involved police, drug action teams and front-line drug workers in 17 towns and cities across the UK. There were three major findings:

  1. An increase in the use of two prescription drugs
  2. Synthetic cannabinoids causing problems for at-risk groups
  3. A marked increase in the purity of cocaine, heroin and ecstasy

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Increased use of pregabalin and gabapentin

Most of the 17 areas reported a significant increase in the misuse of these two prescription drugs which are anticonvulsant medications growing in popularity as treatments for epilepsy, neuropathic pain and anxiety. The drugs are mainly being used by prisoners and opiate users. People use them to get feelings of euphoria and they are commonly used as a way of enhancing other drugs such as alcohol, heroin, methadone and diazepam. The tablets are typically sold for between 50p and £2.

Drug workers said users display extreme intoxication and uninhibited, risky behaviours when using them and cautioned that mixing them with other depressants such as opiates and alcohol significantly increases the risk of overdose. It is sad to report that one or both of these two drugs were mentioned on 41 death certificates in 2013.

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Synthetic Cannabis

Almost every area reported a continued rise in the use of new psychoactive substances. The rapid rise in the use of synthetic cannabinoids such as Black Mamba and Exodus Damnation was of particular concern, particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as opiate users, street homeless, prisoners and socially excluded young people. The problematic use of these drugs has featured regularly in prison inspectorate reports over the last year.

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Purer drugs

After many years in which the quality of mainstream drugs has continually decreased, there was a sudden increase in the purity of cocaine, ecstasy and heroin in most areas. This is attributed to falling wholesale drug prices which have enabled Class A suppliers to improve their product in the face of competition from cheap, potent, new psychoactive substances.

The purity of cocaine, ecstasy and heroin has doubled and even tripled in the last year in some areas. For instance, in Bristol cocaine purity jumped from an average of 10% in 2013 to 30% in 2014.

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Conclusions and concerns

All these developments may have a bearing on the recent, troubling rise in drug-related deaths which increased by 20% in 2013 up to 1,957 (the latest official figures were published in September 2014).

Those contributing to the DrugScope survey identified a mixture of possible causes for the rise, including more heroin users dropping out of services, a downscaling of outreach work, the increasing age of the heroin using population and people overdosing on higher strength heroin. Of the areas that mentioned a rise in drug deaths, some said increased access to naloxone had prevented overdoses becoming fatal.

The DrugScope annual street drug survey is invaluable because it highlights trends often before some treatment services are aware of them enabling them to provide a more comprehensive and relevant service to their service users.

It will be interesting to see if more prescription drugs are being used in next year’s survey.

 

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