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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Drugscapes: A Brookes Criminology Seminar

On the 22nd of May, Oxford Brookes Criminology is hosting its first research seminar, marking the end of an academic year that also saw the launch of the university’s BA/BSc degree in Criminology. Titled ‘Drugscapes: Two years after the ban’, this one-day event seeks to debate and understand how recent prohibition-geared legislation pushed by the Home Office has impacted on recreational drug markets, trends in use and regulation strategies in the United Kingdom.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force in May 2016, following efforts by policy makers to create a more flexible legal framework under which new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’ – naturally-occurring and synthetic compounds outside existing control schedules, at the time – could be efficiently policed. The Act put forward a rather vague understanding of what constitutes a psychoactive effect (and substance) as that ‘stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, [and which] affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.' The logic of this was to effectively create a “blanket ban” that would effectively criminalise all substances to be potentially sold for their psychoactive qualities even before they were actually produced and distributed.
 A generic prohibition would allow the police to go after “head shops” and online vendors bringing in ever novel, chemically tweaked lines of unclassified products. The new legislation provided exemptions for nutritional, alcohol, tobacco or caffeine goods, as well as for substances used for medical purposes, but couldn’t avoid some degree of confusion. Nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”, for example, was ruled by a criminal court as not falling under the incidence of the PSA 2016 as it can also be used therapeutically, as an anaesthetic. This followed the arrests of two defendants who were planning to sell it at the Glastonbury festival, presumably not to the emergency medical staff on watch.
Experts observed that beyond the terminological ambiguities, the Act does not distinguish between (categories of) substances in terms of their (public health) harm potential, focusing solely on ‘psychoactivity’, a notion impossible to disentangle from everyday practices of consumption i.e. we ‘binge’ on Netflix shows or listen to music, among other things, precisely because we seek to alter our biochemical balance, emotions and awareness. Furthermore, they anticipated that new police powers to clamp down on retail outlets would possibly create a displacement effect that could see NPS being absorbed by traditional and less scrupulous street markets. 

This has been observed to be the case, for example, with synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) or ‘Spice’ products. As ‘head shops’ went out of business and street dealers took SCRAs on, they targeted rough sleepers with cheap and potent strains that the police even suspected were laced with heroin and other more traditional, high-risk drugs. In the context of austerity cuts on housing and unemployment benefits pushing more vulnerable people into destitution, this further created a media scare around so-called ‘Spice zombies’ lying unconscious on doorways or moving about in catatonic fits and psychotic episodes, around high streets and city centres throughout the country.         
It is not clear to what extent this new law has been able to inflict a significant reduction in supply. If street outlets can be easily monitored and shut down by law enforcement, online cryptomarkets have proven to be quite resilient to control efforts. Data collected from the hidden Web showed growing numbers of vendors selling NPS such as synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones in the first months after the introduction of the PSA 2016. There have also been concerns around the use of super-strength synthetic opioids like fentanyl, fuelled by dark net sales, possibly leading to an overdose ‘epidemic’ similar to that which has been claiming  thousands of lives in the United States. 
Recent market reconfigurations have also flagged different treatment provision needs. As homeless groups migrate from alcohol, heroin or crack cocaine to synthetic cannabinoids and men who have sex with men turn to intravenous NPS use and ‘chemsex’researchers have suggested that better integrated mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as more efficient user engagement strategies backed up by straightforward referral channels (e.g. through the sexual health services) should be the focal points of response strategiesDrug testing services embedded within night-time economy club or festival venues that inform participants of the exact composition of the street drugs they buy are proving to reduce drug-related harms and fatalities.           
‘Drugscapes’ in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are in permanent flux, shaped by market forces, new technologies, digital cultures and not least ‘war on drugs’ policies which perpetuate old ways of doing things but overlook the complexities of emerging social worlds and problems. By bringing together cutting-edge research and practitioner experiences, we hope to capture some of these dynamics and also help imagine more creative ways of dealing with the harms and challenges they pose. 
Lecturer in Criminology


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