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Legal highs: are you ready for legislative change?

With the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 coming into force on 24 May, it’s a good opportunity to review current practice and what the legislative change will mean for people affected by homelessness and the services that support them.

We have previously reported on the impact of legal highs on homeless populations, with its disproportionate impact in some northern towns receiving national press coverage.

With only a couple of months before the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 comes into force, we need to revisit how we approach the issue – how we talk about it, how we organise and how we support people affected by.

Talking about legal highs

The first point of action is to stop calling them legal highs as this will be inaccurate and misleading under the new legislation.  The official term for drugs which are still legal or yet to become illegal is new psychoactive substances, often shortened to NPS.

The type of NPS commonly reported to be causing significant issues in homelessness services is Spice, synthetic cannabinoids that are currently available to buy over the counter in some newsagents, off licenses and drug paraphernalia shops, often called head shops.

We have recently worked with Manchester’s Day Centre Forum, which reported significant issues with Spice in their services. People using it are usually poly drug users, taking NPS together with other drugs such as crack and cannabis. The underlying drivers for NPS use are therefore likely to be the same as for any problematic drug user.  Working collaboratively with the substance misuse sector we should develop a best-practice approach and training for working with poly drug users.

Frontline knowledge

City-wide, systematic monitoring and data collection of NPS use, with homeless services recording alongside statutory and non-statutory services, would allow a quicker mobilisation of resources. 

This should include a system of alerts and warnings allowing services to inform users of risks following an incident of harm, or relating to a particularly harmful batch or brand.  We have seen similar alert systems in place for other drugs, so these should be extended to include NPS. An alert system would help the rapid targeting of limited staff and communications resources, as well as speed up police action against shops or dealers.

One such system has been piloted in Salford and we believe the learning from it could lead to replicable systems in other cities where NPS use is an issue.

With local authority cuts hitting homelessness and substance misuse services alike, data on NPS incidents and harm would also help to evidence the need for properly resourced services to tackle the issue.

What effect will the new legislation have?

One of the big debates around the upcoming legislation is whether prohibition of sale will simply hand the market over to dealers. Our work with the Manchester Day Centres Forum would suggest that there is already a black market in NPS and the risk is that it is likely to grow once the legislation is enacted.  The expectation that possession will not be criminalised is a step change in drug policy terms, and will hopefully mean a stronger focus on health and reducing harm.

We have yet to see what impact the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 will have on people experiencing homelessness. However, better working with poly-drug users, data collection and cross-sector working will empower homelessness organisations to better respond, ultimately reducing harm for this particularly at risk group of people.

We are pleased that following our work with the Manchester Day Centres Forum, a large study into NPS has been commissioned by Manchester City Council, with Manchester Met researchers hoping to survey thousands of people in the city

Further information is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/psychoactive-substances-bill-2015

Channel website: http://www.homelesslink.org.uk

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