New psychoactive substances: a case for integration between health and criminal justice services

October 2016

This is an edited transcript of a roundtable seminar held on 9 May 2016 with Nigel Newcomen CBE, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and Kate Davies OBE, Head of Health and Justice, Armed Forces and Public Health, NHS England.

new-psychoactive-substances-transcript-pdf Read the full transcript here.

Reform comment

In December last year Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, declared that new psychoactive substances (NPS), also known as legal highs, were the greatest threat to safety in UK prisons. Not only their effects on prisoners’ health conditions, but also the behavioural threats they create, and the consequences of large debts built up by some prisoners, have consolidated NPS as one of the biggest challenges facing the prison estate.

Users of synthetic cannabinoids are 30 times more likely to have been admitted to a hospital emergency room because of their drug use compared to users of actual cannabis, the charity RAPt  reported last year. The debt incurred by prisoners who buy the drugs are creating dangers both to them and their families, and NOMS has furthermore noted the existence of a link between use of NPS and violent behaviour in its latest annual report.

The dramatic increase in seizures of NPS over the past few years have made the Ministry of Justice alert to the problem’s severity. In January last year, then Secretary of Justice, Rt Hon Chris Grayling, introduced new powers to punish prisoners found using or dealing NPS. He also announced new measures to enhance the ability of prisons to discover NPS, as the current mandatory drug testing and specialist dog teams are not able to detect most legal highs.

Further efforts have been made this year, with an NPS toolkit published for prison staff and a Psychoactive Substances Act that came into force on 26 May. The Act makes it an offence to produce and supply all forms of substances intended to produce a psychoactive effect, something which could reduce the supply of NPS to prisons.

In May 2016 Reform partnered with G4S to host a policy roundtable on the rise of NPS and how health and criminal justice services can cooperate to tackle it. The discussion was led by Nigel Newcomen, CBE, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, and Kate Davies OBE, Head of Health and Justice, Armed Forces and Public Health, at NHS England.

Several key themes emerged from the debate. Firstly, it became clear that there is already comprehensive communication and cooperation between the criminal justice system and health services when it comes to handling NPS use in prisons. This is important in order to deal with the different sides of NPS use, one relating to the regulation of prisoner behaviour, and another relating to prisoners’ health.

Secondly, the discussion revealed that prisoners themselves have a major role to play in limiting the spread of NPS. Some of the best and most effective interventions have been from prisoners who have been using NPS and are able to convey its damaging consequences to other offenders.

Thirdly, prevention is considered key. Not only will this spare many prisoners, their families and prison staff of extremely unpleasant and dangerous experiences, prevention is much more cost-effective than treatment.

Fourthly, the use of NPS in prisons may turn out to be a repository of knowledge about effective reduction of NPS consumption in the wider population.

Finally, there was a general sense that more autonomy for individual prisons would better enable governors to create effective prison-specific strategies. Further devolution of powers to prisons is a part of the Government’s current criminal justice policy. There was however also a call for a unified strategy across the country, allowing for widespread sharing of best practice.

NPS pose a serious and distinct challenge to the prison estate, and the exchange of knowledge and ideas will be absolutely crucial to the creation of an effective response to this challenge.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform