What is Spice, the drug ravaging UK prisons?

Synthetic drug banned in 2009 linked to chaos in UK prisons


A new Channel 4 documentary Prison is sparking renewed interest in the shocking extent of drug use in British jails.

One inmate interviewed for the programme said the drug was “a free buzz” and compared the experience of taking spice to “being in a coma”. The documentary showed inmates who had been spiked with the substance becoming zombie-like and unresponsive.

The dangers of spice have also made headlines outside prisons. In 2015, five Lancaster University students were hospitalised after taking the drug.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Here is everything you need to know about spice:

What is Spice?

Spice is a plant-based mix which has been coated with synthetic chemicals. This process turns it into a synthetic cannabinoid containing the same active chemical as cannabis. It is either smoked, or drunk like a herbal tea.

When did it appear?

It was launched in the UK in 2004 and distributed via the internet. Initially, it was sold legally, but it was reclassified as a class B drug in 2009, one of several cannabis-type substances outlawed that year. According to the drugs advice website Talk To Frank, other names for cannabis substitutes include Hawaiian Haze, Bombay Blue Extreme and Blue Cheese.

What effects does it have?

Spice's effects are similar to cannabis, making users feel happy and relaxed. It can also spark paranoia. However, its effects are typically much stronger than cannabis. In some cases, users experience vomiting, extreme agitation and psychotic episodes including hallucinations and heart attacks.

How big of a problem is it in prisons?

One moment in the Channel 4 documentary Prison, which was filmed at HMP Durham, shows nurse Paul Hazel telling an interviewer about days when up to nine prisoners were made comatose by a synthetic substance known as spice, according to The Northern Echo.

A serving prison officer at HMP Holme House in County Durham told Sky News that many of the safety incidents staff deal with are due to the circulation of the synthetic cannabinoid.

But measures are already being taken to counter the influx of Spice. HMP Holme House has become the nation’s first drug recovery prison with a dual focus on preventing drugs from entering the jail while providing better support for prisoners who want to kick the habit. Drug search teams and sniffer dogs are being implemented at the prison full-time as well. Before the introduction of a dedicated Drugs and Crime Reduction Unit (DCRU), spice was responsible for about a dozen overdoses a day at the prison. “You’d have maybe three in the first half hour of the day and then between six and 10 the rest of the day,” the officer said. “But after the DCRUs, we get two or three-a-day, max.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.