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Mamba: Societal Effect

Volume 645: debated on Monday 23 July 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I am delighted finally to lead this debate about the effect on society of the drug Mamba, which is a growing issue both in my constituency and in similar towns across the UK.

Mamba, also known as Black Mamba, is one of several synthetic cannabis products that have emerged on the drugs market in recent years. Members might also have heard of Spice, which was originally a brand name for a version of synthetic cannabis. These drugs contain a herbal smoking mixture that has been mixed with a group of drugs known as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, or SCRAs for short.

Spice and Mamba are now used as nicknames for any type of herbal mixture that has been coated with an SCRA. They were sold as legal highs until the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force, so this is a very recent challenge, which perhaps explains why we seem to be fairly unprepared for dealing with it.

Mamba and Spice were initially seen as an alternative version of cannabis but, as I will go on to say, they bear a closer resemblance to harder drugs such as heroin. The name “synthetic cannabis” is in many ways unhelpful, because it draws comparisons with cannabis that are largely untrue, and the impact is certainly far worse both for individuals and for communities. These drugs are often known as “zombie drugs” for the terrible effects that they have on their users. After consuming Mamba, users often resemble zombies, slumped in a state of semi-consciousness, sometimes foaming at the mouth and sometimes passed out in the street. Tom in my office has given CPR to drug users on multiple occasions when they have passed out in the street outside my office during working hours in broad daylight. It is a huge strain on police, ambulance and hospital services, as well as on Tom’s nerves. These drugs vary wildly from drug to drug and even from batch to batch. They are often made by small-scale producers, so the quality is incredibly inconsistent and sometimes dangerous.

I know that many of my colleagues and Members across the House will have similar issues in their own constituencies. This is a national problem affecting every corner of the United Kingdom.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

This is a national problem affecting every corner of the United Kingdom. In Mansfield town centre, like many town centres around the country, we have a persistent and growing problem with these drugs and the individuals who take them. Users tend to congregate in town in very public places. They consume Mamba and then stay in the town centre for hours in a semi-comatose zombified state. It is awful to see, and it has a terrible impact on users and a knock-on effect on the whole town and across society. It is no exaggeration to say that I receive an email or a message from constituents on this issue literally every single day.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter. As always, he has picked a subject, as he rightly says, that is very important across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Given that Spice is as addictive as heroin, does he not agree that it must be treated with the seriousness, and also with the sanctions, of heroin trafficking?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Later in my speech, I will come on to why that is the case and to what I hope will be remedies for the issue as we currently find it. This comparison with cannabis in particular is neither fair nor realistic. It is more comparable with heroin, and it is important that it is treated in the same way, so that users and people experiencing this in the town centre get the same level of help and support as those addicted to heroin.

I am keen to use this opportunity to ask the Government to undertake a number of actions on this issue. First and foremost, I am concerned about the classification of these drugs. Before the ban on psychoactive substances in 2016, these drugs were sold either over the counter or online, under a variety of brand names. They were often seen as a new version of cannabis. I am pleased that the Government have banned these drugs and other “legal highs” but I am concerned that we have not gone far enough. These drugs are incredibly dangerous, they destroy lives and they are very clearly damaging my community in Mansfield as we speak.

Mamba is highly addictive and the withdrawal symptoms of Mamba and Spice are said to be worse than coming off cocaine or heroin.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the development of a new test for detecting Mamba would be of enormous value in the fight against this drug?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There do not seem to be medical interventions into Mamba in the same way as there are with other drugs. Absolutely, being able to diagnose the cause of this zombified state would be very important and could help the police and local health services.

Anecdotally I have heard from constituents who have tried to overcome their Mamba addiction by moving on to heroin, because they say that it is easier to deal with and that there is more support and more medical intervention available to help them to quit heroin than there is for Mamba, which goes to show that this drug is not comparable with cannabis. This is a hard drug.

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that in countries such as the Netherlands where cannabis has been legalised there is no demand for Mamba, Spice or any of those products?

As I have said, the comparison with cannabis is not a fair one. The challenge with these drugs is their affordability. They are illegal, but people can still get multiple hits for a fiver in the town centre. They were legal before, and perhaps we did not see the back street issue that we do now. The growing strength and poor quality of these drugs means that they are a growing health problem for many constituents.

That is the very point. Because these drugs are now illegal, we have driven them underground and put them into the hands of the criminals. The criminals are making them. We do not know the quality of these drugs. People who could be taking legal cannabis and would be happy taking legal cannabis have been driven into the hands of the criminals and are taking a product with no idea what is in it, and this is having the effects that the hon. Gentleman has so eloquently described.

The point I am trying to make is that cannabis is a totally different thing from these particular drugs. I would be happy to discuss whether we should legalise cannabis further down the line—different models exist around the world—but the point I am trying to make this evening is that the impact of these drugs is far worse than that of cannabis. I certainly do not think that we should go back to a scenario where these particular drugs are legalised. That would present huge challenges.

Users frequently suffer seizures, vomit, and have terrifying hallucinations and severe psychotic episodes. Seeing people in our town centres slumped against walls or hovering in this zombified state is horrific. It is awful for the users, who have literally lost control of their functions and are in desperate need of intervention and support, but it is also awful for other people in town. I have had the experience of trying to explain to my three-year-old son that the man on the floor is not dead and that he must be tired and asleep or whatever. I can easily understand why families contact me regularly, having had that experience, and then choose not to return to Mansfield town centre as a result.

As well as considering reclassification, we need a more joined-up strategy to help towns to deal with this issue. We need more help from the health service, including support programmes and the help for users that exists for other drugs such as heroin, but not for Mamba and Spice. Let me be clear; I am under no illusion that this is a simple issue. It is clear that the effects of Mamba on society are far-reaching and touch upon a number of Government Departments. Since being elected last year, I have focused on local issues, particularly homelessness in Mansfield and Warsop. Individuals who take these drugs are often facing their own personal crises, perhaps due to family breakdown, homelessness, other addictions or mental health problems. I am keen to look at the ways in which we can care for these individuals who are homeless and vulnerable, and who need assistance.

I pay credit to the charities, support workers and volunteers who help Mamba users in my constituency and around the east midlands. Relatively local to my constituency is the Nottingham Recovery Network, which runs a series of Mamba clinics in Nottingham to help users across the city. Next month, I am due to meet Neil Brooks, a clinical specialist who works in connection with the network, in order to learn more about his work and to speak directly to former Mamba users. Neil was kind enough to brief me on his work ahead of this debate. He is broadly supportive of the campaign to raise the classification of Mamba from class B to class A, and is also keen for the Government to look at the ways in which they can support detox programmes for Mamba users. The Nottingham Recovery Network has produced a series of notes that outline the situation locally and provide a useful insight into these drugs, which, after all, are relatively new on the scene. The notes paint a bleak picture.

I will take a couple of minutes to look in more detail at the current situation locally. There are no national figures for emergency hospital admissions for Spice-related incidents, but it is likely to be several thousand admissions a year. Not only is Mamba one of the cheapest drugs on the market; it is also one of the strongest. In their pure form, synthetic cannabinoids are either solids or oils. They are then added to herbs, vegetable matter or plant cuttings to make a smoking mixture, so that the result looks like cannabis.

A key feature of Mamba is the compound acetone. Dealers frequently use nail polish remover, which is used to bind the liquid to the herbal plant matter during production. As well as giving the drug a distinctive smell, acetone causes a variety of physical problems for Mamba users. What is even worse is that dealers and producers are frequently adding more and more acetone to their product to make their Mamba stronger. Alarmingly, the extra acetone content leads to the cost of the drug declining, making it more affordable, but obviously much more dangerous. Mamba continues to drop in price—from £60-£70 an ounce, to now regularly selling for £40-£50 an ounce or even lower. The price of a bag bought on the street remains at about £5, typically providing four hits, so hon. Members will understand why it is becoming the drug of choice for hard drug users.

Mamba is also having an impact in our prisons. Unlike traditional cannabis, Mamba and Spice have a much lower odour, making it difficult for prison staff to tell when inmates are smoking the drugs. There are already considerable pressures on the prison system, but the prevalence of these drugs makes the situation even more challenging for prison staff. It is five years or more since the first reports of these kinds of drugs being used in prisons, and the situation has not been solved. Even worse are the cases where prison staff, nurses or other support workers have encountered the drug by accident, including by inhaling second-hand smoke. The drug is so potent that the effects of inhaling second-hand smoke can be quite significant.

We need to take this seriously. Mamba is not a slightly harder version of cannabis or a recreational drug that users occasionally dabble in. It is becoming the more affordable version of heroin. It is the hard street drug of choice for users because of its affordability, and it is making towns such as Mansfield places that people do not want to visit—never mind the personal impact on the users themselves.

I am asking the Home Office to consider reviewing the classification of these so-called zombie drugs, because the current classification does not reflect the truly dangerous nature of these substances. Changing the classification would mean tougher penalties for manufacturers and dealers.

Has the hon. Gentleman considered what we would be saying to criminals by raising the classification of synthetic cannabis to class A? We would be saying to criminals who handle this drug, “We are going to hammer down on you for this, because we see this drug as more destructive.” They will therefore protect themselves and the people around them by increasing the levels of violence that they use on their people in their marketplace. That would mean that, yet again, it is the vulnerable people who would be the most punished by such a move.

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The problem is the availability of these drugs—they are so easy to find. I have come across bags of it lying in the street in my town centre, just abandoned there. Part of the problem is that people dealing in it and taking it do not see any consequence to their situation. There are very few legal consequences. Later I will come on to some of the challenges with people going round and round the system because of this drug.

Making Mamba a class A drug would mean that it would become more of a risk to deal in it. As a result, the supply would decrease and prices would rise. It would also, crucially, give the police greater powers to prosecute offenders and to get dealers and users off our streets and out of our town centres, whether that is to support services, rehabilitation or, in some cases, prison.

I fully support what the hon. Gentleman says. It is quite clear that we need legislation in place to prevent this drug from destroying lives and destroying the future for many people. It is not sufficient to say that if we legalise it in some places that makes it better—it does not. We need to make sure that it is not legalised and thereby we make sure that people do not have access to it.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to draw the distinction, again, between these drugs and cannabis. They are totally different propositions. There may be an argument for a discussion about the legalisation of cannabis; that is obviously a hot topic at the moment. However, these drugs do not fall into that category—there is genuinely not enough legislation and not enough consequence to taking these drugs. Some of us have seen the impact in town centres; it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman has. The impact that this is having on Mansfield, in particular, is horrendous to see.

Following the hon. Gentleman’s logic, he wants to crack down on Mamba after a series of crackdowns over the years on other hard drugs, but that has hardly been a raging success, has it? All we have seen is the escalation of drugs on our streets. They are so readily available because they are in the hands of criminals, and we do not know what is in them. Coming down hard on vulnerable users and low-level drug dealers does not stop or interrupt the flow of harmful drugs to our streets for any more than a couple of hours. They are soon back and doing it again. All we are doing is playing into the hands of the criminals.

This has to be about support from all sides. A legal line has to be drawn—there have to be ramifications to taking these drugs. There need to be support services and medical intervention. As I have said, medical interventions do not exist for these drugs in the same way as they do for heroin and others. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me in Mansfield town centre that the users of this drug see no legal consequence to literally walking through the streets shouting about having taken it, in front of families, children and whoever else. They are in and out of prison with no consequence. They can go round and round the legal system without any ultimate price to pay. For a homeless person, sometimes a bed in a prison is better than their normal situation. We have to come at this situation from all angles—support, policing, medical intervention and various other aspects that can help to deal with it—because it certainly cannot be allowed to carry on as it is. However, I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point.

It is also vital that we get the message across in schools. Obviously we talk about drugs in schools, but Mamba is relatively new, and it is dangerous. We need to stop people experimenting with the drug in the first place and make sure that they are aware of the dangers.

While the zombified images of users are bad enough—they are flowing around my constituents’ Facebook pages as we speak—let us not forget that these drugs can also be deadly. In March, the deaths of seven men in Birmingham were linked to Mamba. It is not just adults; children are now accessing these substances. The examples I have read about have been absolutely terrifying. Earlier this year, an 11-year-old in Wales smoked synthetic cannabis and ended up in hospital in a high-dependency unit for 33 hours while doctors dealt with the effects it was having on his young body. Although toxicology reports are still pending, it is believed that a 14-year-old boy from Greater Manchester died earlier this year after taking Spice while having a sleepover at his house with friends. He died at the intensive care unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

It is horrendous that we now have children dying after taking these drugs. Local police in my constituency tell me they are concerned that more and more children are now associating themselves with groups of Mamba users, and that this could become a heightened risk over the summer holidays. These drugs share the same classification as cannabis but have far more severe side effects. Having sought the advice of local services, charities and the local police, I know that stakeholders on all sides broadly support the idea of reviewing the classification of Mamba and other synthetic drugs.

Policing this issue is largely managed locally. In June, I met Inspector Nick Butler, the neighbourhood policing inspector in my constituency, and it was good to discuss how the police were tackling it locally. He detailed his concerns about policing Mamba and the effects of Mamba usage on crime levels more broadly. In the past 12 months, the town centre in Mansfield has seen a 22% rise in antisocial behaviour and a 34% rise in shop theft. Much of it relates to street drinking and Mamba usage. There is a persistent group of offenders in the town centre consisting of about 20 individuals, many of whom are heavy drug users. The police know them well and regularly review their cases. The police and support services are trying to deal with the problem, but without the ability to take tough action or a national framework or best practise to draw upon.

It might help if I detail a local case that the police in Mansfield dealt with recently—it might also evidence my view that we need tougher legal ramifications. The example, which I have anonymised, illustrates why we need tougher action. In Mansfield, a male resident and Mamba user repeatedly threatened and assaulted shop staff, district council staff and police in the town centre. This went on for a year. He carried weapons such as flick knives and would not listen to advice or engage with any of the agencies providing support. In fact, he would become verbally abusive if support was offered.

He would take Mamba and other substances in the town centre on a daily basis and become extremely abusive. He would often collapse, which would require an ambulance call-out, but when an ambulance would arrive he would threaten to assault the paramedics. A criminal behaviour order was obtained with a condition that he was not to enter Mansfield town centre, but what happened? He breached the order immediately and was arrested and placed before the courts. This happened four times. He was warned each time by the magistrates court not to breach the order, but each time he would walk out of the court and straight into the town centre, showing a complete disregard for the legal system.

The next time he breached the order, he was placed before the magistrates court and given a £10 fine, but the court also amended his order to allow him to visit a church in the town centre that he said he needed to access support services. The court did not consult the church, which was not very happy, to say the least. After the hearing, he immediately breached the order again on leaving the court and was given a suspended 21-day sentence. Having breached the order for the eighth time in four weeks, he was imprisoned for 30 days. He has once again returned to the town centre, however, and continues to abuse members of the public. He has been arrested again and the court has now bailed him pending reports.

That case makes it only too apparent that individuals can breach orders again and again and just how difficult it is to deal with persistent offenders. My local police cannot figure out what else they can do beyond issuing criminal behaviour orders and moving people out of the town centre. We need to take action to change that. It seems that the police are limited in what they can do when the courts cannot or are not willing to implement tougher penalties.

Aside from that case, I have been contacted by many constituents raising concerns about the impact Mamba is having in our town centre. I have been contacted by staff from local shops, including independent shops and larger companies such as Wilko. Shop staff have raised concerns about threats that they receive at work. The level of shoplifting has risen—I mentioned the statistics earlier—which is having a real impact on the profitability and viability of stores in the town centre.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a project run by John Marks in the Wirral in the 1980s, where he gave medical heroin out to addicts, after which the crime rate dropped by 96%?

I am not aware of that, but I would never advocate giving out heroin to my constituents, and I do not think many of them would go along with it either. I would be interested to read about the project and see the science behind it, but I do not think I would ever be likely to condone that kind of action, if I am being honest.

The threat of violence and the possibility of business closures is causing understandable stress for retail workers locally. They do not deserve to have to deal with “Mamba zombies” as part of their daily work. The Government are working on a number of ways to support our high streets and town centres, but that good work can so easily be undermined by the presence of hard drug users in our town centres. I explained earlier the experience I had with my children, walking through town and trying to explain to them exactly what was going on with this drug use.

Mansfield has great potential in its town centre—independent shops, listed buildings, a lovely market square, amazing people—but I am concerned that the persistent group of drug users in the town centre is already putting people off, and that this reputation will continue to grow unless we take action. I have already touched upon some of the positive steps being taken locally, including work to co-ordinate the approach of the local police and local housing organisations’ outreach support. It is also good news that Mansfield District Council now has a specialist team to tackle drug-related antisocial behaviour in the town centre.

The purpose of this debate is not only to highlight the impact that Mamba is having on local communities, but to lobby the Government for change. I am keen that more action is taken to address the problem at a national level. I have been in contact with the Home Office about Mamba in recent weeks, and of course I welcome the various actions that have already been taken to deal with the misuse of such drugs. Since the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force, banning such substances, hundreds of retailers across the UK have either closed or are no longer selling these drugs. Police have arrested suppliers, and the National Crime Agency has removed many such substances from UK-based websites.

There has been action—it has been a good start—but we need to review the classification of these drugs. We also clearly need a national strategy and support from central Government to help to tackle an issue that is not confined to Mansfield. It is a national problem, with many town centres across the UK experiencing similar problems, and I have heard from other Members about similar issues in their constituencies. We require a national framework, and I am calling on the Government to work with police forces, councils, charities and experts to put a framework in place to help towns and cities to deal with this problem effectively. Police and councils need some advice on how to deal with the problem at local level. Mamba usage is a relatively new problem with its own specific challenges, and the approach has been mixed because we do not have a national plan. While there are great examples, such as the clinic run by the Nottingham Recovery Network, the reality in many areas is that police forces, councils and charities have to deal with the issue without effective guidance and without the frameworks to ensure a collaborative cross-organisational approach.

We also need to investigate what medical interventions might be possible. It is easy to talk about drug users as a problem, but many obviously have their own personal issues and terrible personal circumstances that have lead them to this point. As far as I can see, there is no medical approach in the same way that there is for heroin users with methadone. I have not concentrated on that, because a Home Office Minister is responding to the debate and it is more of a Department of Health and Social Care issue. However, I hope that the Minister will consider that.

I am asking the Government to create a national strategy and framework, including clear guidelines and advice, to help those who are dealing with such drugs. I will be grateful if the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about the medical interventions that may be available. Most importantly, the Government should consider reclassifying the drug so that it is more comparable with heroin and cocaine than marijuana, to give the police the opportunity to deal with it in the same way. This is an incredibly serious problem that we need to address head on.

Since being elected, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) has been a tireless champion for his constituents, and I congratulate him on securing a debate on an issue that is clearly causing a great deal of concern in Mansfield. As he rightly points out, that concern is shared across many town centres, which was reflected in a recent Westminster Hall debate on the subject, and I saw for myself while out on patrol with the police on the streets of Newcastle just what a damaging and unsettling effect these so-called zombie drugs can have. As he points out, such drugs have also been linked to deaths, with 27 in 2016 according to the Office for National Statistics, so we are talking about a serious issue.

As my hon. Friend said, this is a relatively recent challenge, but it is a growing one, and I hope I can assure him that the Government are taking it seriously. We are not going as far as he would like at this point, but the subject is kept regularly under review because we are aware of how dangerous such drugs can be, of the devastating impact that they can have on families and the individuals taking them and of how unsettling they are for communities. As he pointed out, such drugs are often more potent that cannabis and their effects are not well understood. Batches vary in strength, making it easy to use too much. Using such drugs can cause immediate side effects such as panic and hallucinations, long-term harm such as psychosis, and dependence. That was why we acted to control these substances as class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to give the police the powers they need to take action, including making possession illegal and providing longer sentences for dealers.

I am not going to take interventions, because the hon. Gentleman took up a lot of time during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, and I have a short amount of time in which to respond and pay sufficient respect to the subject.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the use of new psychoactive substances has fallen significantly since we introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Thanks to that legislation, hundreds of retailers have either closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances, and the first offenders have been convicted. He expressed a note of scepticism about police powers. While there were 28 convictions in England and Wales in 2016, with seven jailed under the new powers, that rose to 152 convictions with 62 people immediately sent to custody in 2017.

My hon. Friend’s central point was his desire, shared by colleagues in the House—I am thinking particularly of our mutual hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—to see synthetic cannabinoids such as Mamba and Spice reclassified from class B to class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I understand the argument my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is making specifically about wanting to introduce more risk into the dealing of these highly dangerous drugs. He will appreciate that the controls we have put in place are relatively recent, and their impact is being monitored closely. The Government rely heavily on advice from the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. Its position at the moment is not to reclassify synthetic cannabinoids.

I have already told the hon. Gentleman that I will not give way to him, because I am responding to the debate.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield that the Government will continue to keep an eye on the area and will continue to engage with colleagues who have a deep concern. In the absence of the decisive move that he is arguing for, the key in the short term is cross-sector partnership work at the local level, as he pointed out. I am aware of the approach being taken in Mansfield, which he rightly praised. I am also aware of the work that the police there have undertaken along with other agencies to tackle problems with the use of these drugs. He talked about the need for a national framework. He may or may not be aware that the national policing lead for drugs has provided forces with operational guidance setting out tactical options for dealing with synthetic cannabinoids. I will keep under review the need for broader national guidelines on best practice in relation to cross-partnership working, which is the key here.

In my hon. Friend’s area, there is close work between partners including the drugs monitoring group, which identifies general drug problems and emerging trends in Nottinghamshire; the professional information network, which shares intelligence and learning among partner agencies in the area about emerging psychoactive substances, including Mamba; and the police, who disrupt the supply and distribution. I am also aware of a problem profile of the drug that Nottinghamshire police have drawn up. My hon. Friend may be aware of that.

On top of that work, Mansfield—along with Nottingham, Rushcliffe, Gedling, Broxtowe, Ashfield, Newark and Sherwood and Bassetlaw—is receiving £370,000 over two years to provide a Nottinghamshire rough sleeper prevention service. My hon. Friend will know of the clear links between these drugs and rough sleeping. That money will help rough sleepers to access support services, including substance misuse services.

Another very good example of multi-agency working has taken place in Manchester. A study was commissioned to understand the scale and nature of the problem in the area, and the multi-agency approach there appears to be working. It includes enforcement work to tackle the dealing of these drugs; working with treatment services to ensure that synthetic cannabis users are receiving treatment; increasing the numbers of trained outreach workers; fast-tracking users to a range of services; and local voluntary sector support to police and ambulance services. I commend the work in Manchester, as well as that in Nottinghamshire, including Mansfield.

I have made the connection with rough sleeping, because the increasing use of synthetic cannabinoids among rough sleepers reflects the fact that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, they are cheaper, stronger and more accessible than other substances, such as heroin, crack cocaine or alcohol. Local strategies must therefore cover rough sleeping. As he knows, the Government take this issue very seriously. We will be bringing forward our rough sleeping strategy later this summer, which will make an important contribution.

In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend for securing this Adjournment debate on a very important topic. I hope I have made it clear that the Government are not sitting on our hands. We recognise across the Government that this issue is best tackled by working collaboratively. There is no overnight solution, but the set of measures I have set out shows the strong links between the use of synthetic cannabinoids and vulnerable groups, and this Government are determined to take the necessary action to get on top of this growing problem—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).