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New report reveals extent of legal high usage in prisons

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A study carried out by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has revealed that the use of legal highs, such as spice and black mamba, is so rife that it is actually putting local ambulance services under pressure due to the number of inmates requiring regular medical assistance because of their adverse reactions to the drugs.  

The study took into account evidence from 61 inspections over the last 18 months and found that legal highs are now the most common form of psychoactive substance used in prison. There are several reasons for this: first of all they are often cheaper than other drugs available, secondly they are frequently capable of escaping detection due to the substances not showing up on prison drug tests and the fact that many of them have a minimal odour when smoked.

Mr Hardwick highlights some of the adverse reactions that prisoners have experienced following consumption of legal highs including fits, blackouts and episodes of psychosis. Substances such as spice and black mamba are chemically engineered to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. These drugs are banned in prison even though they are still technically legal in the community. Unlike cannabis there is evidence to suggest that synthetic cannabanoids are a lot less predictable in terms of negative side effects.

The research reveals that some inmates are actually selected as ‘spice pigs’ to test out new batches of drugs to see if they are safe for wider trade. This may be done knowingly in exchange for free samples but clearly there is also potentially for vulnerable inmates to be pressurised into consuming the drugs as a quality control test; the potential for exploitation is clear.

The scale of the legal high trade in prison is now so great that there are reports of several ambulances being called out to a single prison at a time to deal with symptoms related to use of the drugs. One example cited is an incident where all available local ambulances were sent to a prison to deal with multiple inmates suffering bad reactions to legal highs. Worryingly this occurred locally in Yorkshire, at HMP Wealstun in Wetherby.

Whilst it may be more difficult to quantify the knock on effect of legal high usage in prison on the community, the figures show at least 19 deaths in prison over the last few years have been linked to the drugs. Research published by the Prison and Probation Ombudsman in July this year looked at the period April 2012 to September 2014 when the fatalities had occurred. However there may be many more prison deaths during this period, and since, where legal highs have at least played a role. Certainly in the Civil Liberties Department at Lester Morrill inquest solicitors have noted an increase in the number of cases they are dealing with where new psychoactive substances are a feature.

It is clear that the prison service is struggling at present to keep up with the rapid increase in legal highs and the creative ways in which these substances are being smuggled into prisons. Whilst new drug tests are currently being developed in order to increase detection of the substances and new legislation to ban the drugs is on the cards for the new year, it seems inevitable that further prison deaths linked to legal highs are bound to occur in the meantime.

The author of this article is Rebecca Treece, who is part of the civil liberties team at Leeds based solicitors Lester Morrill. Gemma Vine and Rebecca Treece are Inquest Specialists and have developed a national reputation for representing bereaved families at Inquests.

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