Synthetic Cannabinoids: Reclassification — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:53 am on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 9:53 am, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this vital debate on an urgent issue for my constituents. I am immensely grateful to those I work with locally who are on the frontline, supporting users and the communities in which they live. Organisations such as Saltbox, Brighter Futures, Voices and Number 11 work tirelessly to deal with the consequences of the new substances. They are on the frontline with our brave public servants—the police, paramedics and A&E professionals—who deal with the consequences day in, day out. The huge spike in the use of synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Black Mamba and synthetic psychoactive substances such as Monkey Dust is causing immeasurable harm to my communities and drawing new battle lines in the war on drugs.

I am very proud to represent the people of Stoke-on-Trent. My city truly is a wonderful place to live, and I have a duty to protect it and to fight for my constituents. For too long our city has been at the epicentre of this growing crisis. Synthetic drugs such as Monkey Dust and Black Mamba are too easily available on our streets and can be found for as little as £2 or £3 a hit. The drugs are cheap, powerful and dangerous, and are wreaking havoc on our communities.

On 4 September, it was reported that Staffordshire police had responded to no fewer than 950 Monkey Dust-related incidents in the previous three months alone—an average of 10 calls a day—and the situation is only getting worse. We are in the grip of an epidemic that has devastating consequences, not just for users but for the wider public. Every week I am confronted by a new horror story from one of my constituents, of threatening and intimidating behaviour, of drug users passed out in alleyways and parks, and of growing violence between rival dealers and gangs. My constituents too often have to tell me about the obstacle course of rubbish and drug paraphernalia they have to traverse on their way to work, and about the fear that prevents them from letting their children leave the house alone. One person wrote to me last week describing their street as something out of a zombie film, and another stopped me while I was out canvassing to tell me that drug users were walking up and down their street at night trying peoples’ door handles in an attempt to get into their homes.

The most harrowing story I have heard concerns a young woman who had a drug user jump into her car outside her house and refuse to get out. My constituent’s four-year old daughter who was in the car was forced to leap out in terror and she is now terrified. The same individual later forced entry into someone else’s house on that street and assaulted them. That is what we are dealing with. That is what my constituents—decent, hard-working people—are forced to endure, and it cannot be allowed to continue.

Our police do incredible work in tackling the problem, but they are stretched to their limit, and with Staffordshire police set to lose a further £6.6 million of funding, our local thin blue line is set to get even thinner. However, this is not just an enforcement issue. The people whose lives are being ruined by the drugs need support, whether treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, mental health support or, as in many cases, support to tackle the homelessness and rough sleeping that all too often leads to people turning to drugs and alcohol as a comfort and an escape—they are clearly self-medicating. All too often, that assistance simply is not there. Deep cuts to drug treatment and recovery support have made it much harder for people to seek help, and have left the police and social services with nowhere to refer users to for treatment.

Worse still, the low classification of these synthetic drugs means that they are frequently designated a low priority. What little support remains is instead directed towards those struggling with opiates and other hard drugs. In Stoke-on-Trent, local support charities have told me that they are supporting people who have started using heroin so that they will be eligible for the rehab support they have been denied when trying to get off Monkey Dust. Such is the desperation of those seeking to get clean that they are resorting to even more dangerous and destructive substances to access the help they need.

Even the provision we have in my great city is under threat. This year, Stoke-on-Trent City Council decided to cut drug and alcohol services by £751,000. My hon. Friend Gareth Snell and I recently wrote to Ann James, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, urging her to reconsider the cuts and to recognise the need to focus our energies on the new synthetic substances. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, and she should be ashamed.

More than anything, we need the Government to recognise the scale of the problem and to provide the resources we need before the potential of a generation disappears in a puff of smoke. I hope the Minister comes away from the debate with a clearer understanding of the urgency of the situation in towns and cities across the UK.