NPS and Enforcement
After a brief pause the Psychoactive Substances Act is going to be applied on 26th May 2016. The legislation is designed to outlaw the trade in legal highs, synthetic chemicals that imitate the effects of traditional illicit drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, but does not make their possession outside a prison a criminal offence. The open sale of NPS through ‘head shops’ and the like is to be banned with the intent of making it explicit that these substances are not legitimate sources of trade or income. There are of course further concerns that driving the sale of NPS further underground may make it more difficult to control or keep track of.
The passage of the bill through government has provoked widespread debate within our about the effectiveness (or not) of legislating against drug use. It should be welcomed by all that personal possession of NPS will not in itself be an offence with one curious exception. Possession of NPS within a prison is to be an offence in its own right. I guess time will tell what (if any) impact this has within the prison estate. I suspect that those who are in prison for committing an offence are unlikely to be deterred in general from using a drug because it has become an offence to do so.
There is no doubt that NPS use within the prison estate is causing particular problems. Misuse of NPS has been implicated in 19 deaths over the last couple years and there are widespread reports of disorder (as well as pronounced complications around the health of prisoners) within the estate linked their use. These reports have included financial exploitation as well as violence and assault – not helped undoubtedly with other pressures within the estate around staffing levels and competing demands placed upon prison staff.
Treatment providers within the Prison estate all identify wider use and escalating problems and are struggling to respond effectively. The use itself is often difficult to quantify, there are uncertainties about the immediate and longer term health impacts of using these synthetic psychoactive substances and prisoners are reluctant to disclose their use (often for fear of further reprisals).
However none of this means ‘nothing can be done’. Skilled workers who are used to working with drug users and delivering behavioural change interventions must not be constrained through fear of what they ‘don’t know’ about the substances themselves. Core skills around engagement, motivation, building resilience and assets and developing alternative interests are equally applicable to this client group as any other.
Using a recognised evidence base and co-producing an overarching strategy and suite of interventions with in-house staff, service users and external experts our approach incorporates: approved screening tools, brief and extended brief interventions, a bespoke psychosocial treatment programme, training interventions for our staff as well as prison, health and associated partner staff and an ability to test and analyse seized substances.
Clearly the only way to really address the issue be it in prison or in the wider community is to take a whole prison / whole system approach, one that provides relevant and accessible advice and information about the harms of the substances, focuses upon prevention as well as reducing supply. But critically any approach must have effective treatment and support at its’ heart. Promoting recovery cultures, drug free areas, peer support and access to a wide range of activities that provide stimulation and hope and reduce the attraction of drug use within prisons must be our aim.
But crucially effective engagement and treatment should be the framework upon which everything else hangs.