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Synthetic cannabis a major problem for prisons

Synthetic cannabis in prison such a major problem that inspectors recommend the Prisons Minister oversees a comprehensive response

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Important new thematic inspection report

The week before Christmas (18 December 2015) HM Inspectorate of Prisons published an important report on the key issue which dominated prison life (and media coverage) in 2015:

Changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons and service responses

Numerous individual prison inspection reports and an excellent briefing by the prison drug treatment agency RAPt had already highlighted the surge in use in new psychoactive substances (NPS) and accompanying rise in violence and hospital admissions.

This thematic report doesn’t duck the issue:

NPS have created significant additional harm and are now the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system that our inspections identify.

It is based on an impressive wealth of material:

  • 61 adult prison inspections published between April 2014 and August 2015,
  • 10,702 survey responses from individual prisoners that were collected as part of those inspections
  • Detailed field work conducted in eight prisons between June and November 2014.
  • Interviews with prisoners, prison staff and managers, drugs and health workers, and other experts.



The main findings from the thematic inspection are:

  • Substance misuse is a serious threat to the security of individual prisons, the health of prisoners and the safety of prisoners and staff. Crime associated with the supply of drugs to prisons and the negative impact of drug use on measures to reduce reoffending adversely affects the community as a whole.
  • Patterns of drug use in prison reflect changes in the wider community but are also markedly different. A much higher proportion of prisoners use drugs; there is a preference for depressants rather than stimulants and use tends to reflect what is easiest to get past security. The use of diverted medication is a long-standing problem.
  • NPS – specifically, synthetic cannabis – are a problem in many prisons, particularly Category C ones, and a very serious threat to the safety and security of some.
  • Every prison does not have the same drug problem(s), and patterns of use may change quickly. Policy and operational responses should be flexible and dynamic to meet changing patterns of use.
  • Prisons have not adapted quickly enough to cope with the big rise in the use of synthetic cannabis.
  • Current testing methods neither deter use nor give an indication of patterns of use.
  • Most prisons don’t have a “whole-prison” approach to tackling drugs.
  • Efforts to reduce the supply of drugs vary considerably between prisons and are often exacerbated by lack of resources.
  • Insufficient use is made of prisoners’ families, friends and prisoner peer supporters to reduce supply and demand for illicit substances. Peer supporters are a proven component of effective drug treatment in prison and in the community.



The inspectors make a series of recommendations aimed at different bodies. The first one shows the unprecedented importance they place on this issue:

The Prison Service should improve its response to current levels and types of drug misuse in prisons and ensure that its structures enable it to respond quickly and flexibly to the next trend. A national committee should be established, chaired by the Prisons Minister, with a membership of relevant operational experts from the public and private prison sectors, health services, law enforcement, substance misuse services and other relevant experts.

Other recommendations include:

  • All prisons to have an up-to-date drug and alcohol strategy and action plan which includes supply reduction, demand reduction and treatment based on a comprehensive local assessment of need, overseen by a committee which includes consistent attendance from all departments and relevant community representation.
  • Education and information should be provided to families about synthetic cannabis and other drugs.
  • Protocols should be developed to involve families (where appropriate) in work to help individual prisoners tackle their drug problems.
  • More work with local police to disrupt supply.
  • Mandatory drug testing should not be a performance indicator – to encourage its proper and full use.
  • Rolling out new testing methods which can identify NPS.
  • Develop peer-led drug education in every prison.
  • Developing a strategy to tackle the misuse of prescription medications.

This is a particularly hard-hitting and well-argued thematic inspection report, typical of the (sadly) outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.


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