Rise of the zombies: Cheaper and more addictive than crack, Spice is the synthetic drug that turns users into the ‘living dead’ in minutes and is ruining lives across Britain
- Spice is a generic term for various mixtures of herbs and potent chemicals
- Until last May spice was openly on sale in Britain as a so-called ‘legal high’
- A powerful strain has emerged that produces a terrifying zombie-like effect
- Around Manchester city square and shopping area in Piccadilly Gardens, the ‘zombies’ with sunken cheeks and white skin covered in sores are highly visible
Dead men and women were walking the streets of central Manchester this week.
Some of them, their faces wan and eyes open, but filled with a terrible vacancy, stumble forward with arms out-stretched.
Others stand stock-still like shop mannequins, seemingly unconscious but upright, or slumped forward, as commuters scurry past with their heads down.
There were still more I spotted comatose on pavements or slumped in doorways. One young man in a grey tracksuit lolled on the steps outside McDonald’s, twitching and gibbering to himself.
Dead men and women were walking the streets of central Manchester this week. Their zombie-like appearance was caused by a powerful new strain of the synthetic drug known as ‘spice’
Outside the Arndale Shopping Centre, I saw another youth passed out on his back, his arms and legs extended into the air as if rigor mortis had set in.
These are the victims of Spice, a generic term for various mixtures of herbs and potent chemicals which, until last May, was openly on sale in Britain as a so-called ‘legal high’.
Now, a powerful strain has emerged that produces a terrifying zombie-like effect in those who smoke it. It is estimated that up to 95 per cent of the young homeless in Manchester are using it, many of them hopelessly addicted.
Drug experts are warning of a Spice epidemic that is spreading from the North-West, driving a wave of crime and casualties that the police and emergency services are struggling to cope with.
‘[Spice] has the physically addictive qualities of heroin and the psychologically addictive qualities of crack,’ says Robert Ralphs, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Manchester and an expert on the drug.
The crisis came to national attention this week following the publication of video footage, shot by an office worker in Manchester, showing people under its influence.
Photographs published in the Mail, taken by a bus driver who was alarmed by what he was seeing along his route each day in Wrexham in North Wales, further underlined this developing threat.
Drug experts are warning of a Spice epidemic that is spreading from the North-West, driving a wave of crime and casualties that the police and emergency services are struggling to cope with
It has led to calls for Spice to be made a Class A drug.
I was, I admit, highly sceptical of the claims being made for Spice. I’m from Edinburgh, the heroin capital of Europe in the Eighties and setting for the film Trainspotting. I haven’t led a sheltered life and I believed I knew the worst that drugs could do.
It seemed highly unlikely a drug first produced as a supposedly ‘safe’ synthetic cannabis alternative — something available as a legal high for years to British teenagers — could have morphed into a substance wreaking more destruction than heroin or crack cocaine, as some of the reports suggested.
But what I have discovered is that there is nothing exaggerated about the effects of this highly addictive drug, as was evident within minutes of my arrival at Manchester Piccadilly Station this week.
Around the city square and shopping area in Piccadilly Gardens, the ‘zombies’ with their sunken cheeks and ghostly white skin covered in sores are highly visible.
I watched users on a bench packing their pipes with Spice. Within seconds of smoking the drug, they were catatonic.
Carl, 50, was mixing his fix — an odourless, crumbly, green mix — with tobacco to roll in a joint when I approached him, just 20 yards from a mobile police office.
He became addicted some years ago after buying the drug at a shop selling legal highs.
‘It’s awful to come off it — you rattle,’ he told me. ‘I’ve tried to get off it, but it’s harder than gear [heroin].’ He inhaled on the joint. It looked like a cigarette and was odourless — one reason users feel no need to hide their habit.
Now, a powerful strain has emerged that produces a terrifying zombie-like effect in those who smoke it
‘I smoke this because it’s better for me than injecting with needles — better for my health. I’m starting to feel woozy. I can feel all my problems going away.’
The conversation was swiftly terminated: Carl decided he wanted to be alone. He stood up and moved down the street. I watched him go. Five minutes later, he had managed barely 100 yards.
Carl is a typical victim in that the roots of this problem go back to the manufacture of legal highs in the late Nineties. These were chemical compounds sold in attractive packaging and made in industrial quantities in China and India to beat UK drugs laws.
They were not covered by legislation because the key chemicals they contained were unknown.
Under names such as Black Mamba, K2 and Spice, they were sold as ‘harmless’ synthetic cannabis substitutes in legal high shops across Britain.
After a series of deaths were linked to them, the government acted — belatedly in the view of many who had been warning of the dangers — to shut down these shops last May, when a new law was introduced banning all psychoactive substances said to impact mental health.
A new strain of Spice leaves users paralysed as the effects of the drug take hold of their senses on the streets of Manchester
However, it was too late for those already addicted and so the demand for Spice remained.
Dealers of traditional hard drugs such as ‘white’ and ‘brown’ (slang for cocaine and heroin) started selling Spice, which is far cheaper and less risky to make locally than to import hard drugs.
The so-called Spice barons buy plant materials in bulk on the internet and spray them with synthetic chemicals which have potent psychoactive properties. Some dealers mix whole batches in their baths.
Tests on a Spice sample obtained in Manchester this week indicated the leaves had been sprayed with 5F-ADB, a synthetic chemical originally developed to mimic cannabis, but which is far more ‘efficient’.
It has been linked to a number of deaths in the UK and abroad. According to some experts, one Spice joint is akin to smoking up to 100 cannabis joints.
No one can explain why the drug has taken hold so quickly or why in Manchester particularly. But price is a factor.
So much is being produced that it’s half the price it was when sold as a ‘legal high’. At £5 a fix — a small plastic bag of Spice bearing an image of Bob Marley — will produce three joints and leave the user comatose for ten hours.
Dealers of traditional hard drugs such as ‘white’ and ‘brown’ (slang for cocaine and heroin) started selling Spice (pictured), which is far cheaper and less risky to make locally than to import hard drugs
Julie Boyle, who works for homeless charity Lifeshare at its drop-in centre, is a no-nonsense veteran of street life. Over the years she’s seen Manchester in the grip of heroin and cocaine. But she shudders at the effects of Spice. ‘It’s horrible stuff — a proper epidemic,’ she told me. ‘I’ve seen people frothing at the mouth and passing out. When some people take it, it’s like someone has pressed pause on the TV. They freeze into one position.
‘In the city centre are people like the walking dead. You wouldn’t even know they were alive. They don’t know where they are. I have never seen anything like this.’
Ms Boyle says that people can become addicted within three days. She agrees 95 per cent of 3,200 homeless people in Greater Manchester are on the drug. The consequences are far reaching.
She told me about one youngster who claimed to be HIV positive after being given Spice.
‘The individual passed out and woke to find they had been sexually assaulted, robbed and stabbed with a dirty needle,’ she said.
‘Another young girl has been passed round and raped by some of the homeless community in return for drugs.
One man went into cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated, and I saw him smoking Spice again three hours later.’
Long-term side-effects range from nausea and tooth loss to heart and lung problems. Of greater concern are mental health issues
Long-term side-effects range from nausea and tooth loss to heart and lung problems. Of greater concern are mental health issues. Yesterday, Lifeshare was training police officers from Wrexham facing their own Spice crisis.
The impact on the over-stretched emergency services is dramatic: 26 ambulances were called out in one day last week to help people suffering from fits and seizures after smoking Spice. In one 30-minute spell, there were two incidents in the city centre and I saw ambulances arriving to deal with victims who had collapsed.
WHAT IS ‘SPICE’?
Spice is a synthetic high which falls into a category of drug-like substances that can be bought in shops or online without breaking the law, but which give the body the same artificial rush of endorphins – or ‘high’ – as illegal drugs such as cannabis or ecstasy.
Black Mamba is a variation of Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid which has similar effects to natural cannabis.
However it is much more potent and reacts more strongly with the brain’s receptors.
Regular use can cause a relapse of mental health illness or increase the risk of developing a mental illness especially if someone has a family history of mental illness.
Earlier this year, a global drugs survey found that hospital admissions as a result of taking the herbal substance Spice have increased by one-third since 2014.
Reported effects include convulsions, shortness of breath, kidney failure and cardiac arrest, as well as hallucinations and irreparable damage to the user’s mental health.
Spice was made illegal in May this year.
Manchester may be the epicentre of this crisis, but it is spreading rapidly to other cities, including Birmingham and Cambridge.
The source of the problem in the Piccadilly Gardens area is not hard to spot. Young drug dealers were operating yards from a mobile police office manned by two police community support officers.
The dealers, in hoodies with baseball caps pulled low, have undisguised contempt for authority as well as their customers.
I saw one addict, who could barely walk, ask for a ‘£5 deal’. They all sniggered as one went off with the man, shouting out loud: ‘He wants Spice!’
When I asked after business, one of the dealers — he can’t have been more than 16 — moaned that he was paid commission of only £4 on a £20 bag. An older youth was not impressed with my questions, fearing I would attract the attention of the police. ‘You are making it hot! Hot! ****ing hot! — do you hear me? Go!’
I went. I’d been told some of the dealers are ‘carrying’ — slang for knives and other weapons. These dealers are the aggressive young foot soldiers working for highly organised crime syndicates making millions from the trade. And the police seem to be failing utterly to get to grips with them.
On Tuesday and Wednesday night, the dealers were operating brazenly between Primark and a Betfred book-makers’ shop.
As I watched them selling Spice on one side of the street, charity workers were on the other side, handing out sandwiches and soup to the hundreds of homeless who congregate in the area.
Housing associations refuse to accept Spice users and even squatters won’t share accommodation with them, according to the charities, because of their violent and unpredictable behaviour.
Housing associations refuse to accept Spice users and even squatters won’t share accommodation with them, according to the charities, because of their violent and unpredictable behaviour. Pictured, left and right, are two Spice users in north Wales
However well meaning, charities are exacerbating the problem. ‘They come to Manchester because they know they will get well fed and won’t need to waste money on food,’ one volunteer told me. ‘They can keep all their money for drugs. But what can you do? You can’t let them starve. But it’s true that it means we are unwittingly helping them with their addiction.’
Nor are prison sentences a deterrent for dealers. Indeed, even greater riches are to be made by the Spice barons within the prison system.
Stephen McEvoy, a career criminal from Salford, was released last week from Strangeways Prison after completing his latest sentence. He told me that Spice and Black Mamba are the reason for the increasing number of violent incidents inside.
‘This drug [Spice] is a man eater,’ he said as he celebrated his freedom at a pub in Eccles, a rough Manchester suburb.
‘I’ve tried crack, heroin, acid, mescaline, crack cocaine — you name it, I’ve taken it. This is worse than them all.’
McEvoy, 47, added that prison dealers were making a profit of up to £1,500 per ounce on a substance that costs about £50 an ounce when bought in bulk.
There are claims that drones are being used to deliver the drug to inmates. ‘Everyone is on it inside,’ said McEvoy. ‘You just want more and more of it. I’ve seen people on all fours on the prison landing barking at the Moon.
‘I’d say to everyone: do not smoke this ever, even once, or it will send you under.’
As a result of the Spice epidemic, Piccadilly Gardens has become a violent and sinister place.
Few beat officers are seen in the area, say locals, and the mobile police office shuts at night. The streets do, indeed, belong to those dubbed the Spice Heads.
Following headlines such as ‘Zombie Britain’, officers did make a rare foray into this hotbed of criminality a few days ago for a temporary crackdown. It only highlighted their impotence.
An alleged Spice user was pictured lying face down on the floor of the bus station in Wrexham. Yesterday, Lifeshare was training police officers from Wrexham facing their own Spice crisis
When a two-man patrol attempted to arrest a Spice dealer close to Primark, the situation spiralled out of control as other addicts and dealers surrounded the officers, shouting and swearing at them as they attempted to handcuff the suspect and get him into a van.
Reinforcements arrived in nine police vehicles. Shouting at the crowd to move back, the officers finally managed to get restraints round the suspect’s legs and take him away.
The crowd finally dispersed. I watched as, within an hour and as night fell, the dealers were back in position and addicts, young and old, shuffled over to ‘score’.
Last night, Inspector Phil Spurgeon of the Greater Manchester city centre team confirmed ‘we are seeing more and more people using Spice in busy public areas in the city centre’.
He said the force was ‘working hard’ to stop the dealers and to ‘support the ambulance service and the NHS, which are also feeling the impact of increased Spice-related cases’.
It may not be enough. Unless swift action is taken, Spice will turn even more of Manchester, and other cities, into places of darkness and violence. Tragically, it is already too late for thousands addicted to this wretched drug.