Ministry of Justice
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New crackdown on dangerous legal highs in prison

Offenders found abusing so-called ‘legal highs’ in prison will face a new crackdown by prison authorities as of this week.

Prosecution, additional days in prison, segregation, ‘closed visits’ and a range of other potential penalties, are all on the cards for those who flout the rules.

New, additional powers in the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill will give powers to specify non controlled drugs (including so-called ‘legal highs’) which can be tested for as part of the Mandatory Drug Testing Programme.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:

Go onto any prison wing, and staff will tell you that whilst we’ve made good headway on drug misuse in prisons, there’s a new phenomenon they are increasingly seeing in the form of so-called ‘legal highs’. What we’re also hearing is that these substances seem to be part of the problem around increasing violence in our prison estate.

No one should be under any illusion how dangerous the abuse of any drug is. We are determined to make sure governors have every power at their disposal to detect supply, punish those found using or dealing, and enforce a zero tolerance approach.

Prisoners should be very clear – if they think they can get away with using these substances, they need to think again. And the same applies to those who are the suppliers, whether they’re inside or outside the prison gates.

Next week, prison governors will receive new guidance from the Ministry of Justice which sets out clearly for the first time the measures available to them to deal with New Psychoactive Substances (NPS /‘legal highs’). This will reinforce the prison estate’s zero tolerance approach to contraband.

Any prisoner who is suspected of being involved in smuggling prohibited items, including legal highs, through visits can face:

  • ‘closed visits’, where no contact is allowed with their partners or children
  • having up to 42 days added to their time in prison
  • being confined to their cell for up to 21 days with no association time
  • forfeiting up to 100% of earnings, for up to 84 days – average weekly wage is £9.60
  • having certain privileges removed for up to 42 days – such as additional visits, higher rates of pay, own clothing, TV, extra time out of cell
  • being placed in a higher security prison
  • prosecution and a further sentence, if it is a controlled drug

In addition, the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a raft of measures designed to beef up the existing security and prevention measures including:

  • training of specialist dog teams to search and detect synthetic drugs in prisons - over 530 dogs are currently deployed to prisons in England and Wales, searching cells for hidden drugs, patrolling prison perimeters and searching visitors to prevent drugs from being smuggled in
  • a new Public Health Monitoring project will begin this month, analysing up to 10,000 urine samples alongside drug seizures in 10 prisons in the North West for the presence of synthetic drugs, prescription drugs and a wider range of controlled drugs
  • a major push on prison communications to make sure that offenders are aware of the consequences of taking NPS – as are visitors of attempting to bring them in
  • work with the Home Office to take forward recommendations from the NPS Expert Panel Review, including consideration of further legislative options to tackle NPS misuse

Notes to Editors

  • New Psychoactive Substances cannot be sold for human consumption, and contain one or more chemical compounds that are designed to produce similar effects to illicit drugs. They are often misleadingly referred to as ‘legal highs’. A large number of them have been controlled by the Home Office, and some have also been found to include illegal drugs which make their possession illegal. There are however others which are not yet covered by existing drugs laws. Their misuse in the community has been linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions and in some cases, death.

  • The Courts and Criminal Justice Bill was passed by the Lords on Wednesday 21 January 2015. Provisions in this Bill will mean that we have the power to specify drugs (including so-called ‘legal highs’) which can be tested for as part of the Mandatory Drug Testing Programme.

  • Drug misuse in prisons as tested by the existing MDT programme has declined by 17.0 percentage points over the past 17 years - positive rates were 24.4% in 1996 to 1997 and 7.4% in 2013 to 2014.

  • The following information was recently provided in response to a Parliamentary Question (209374) and provides some context about finds of prohibited substances in prison. The table below gives the number of seizures of Mephedrone, BZP, Spice and Ketamine in prisons in England and Wales in the timeframe requested.

  01/01/2010-31/12/2010 01/01/2011-31/12/2011 01/01/2012-31/12/2012 01/01/2013-31/12/2013 01/01/2014-31/07/2014
Mephedrone 0 0 0 3 2
BZP 0 1 0 0 0
Spice 15 86 133 262 430
Ketamine 1 3 5 2 4
Total 16 90 138 267 436
  • Many drugs are similar in appearance and in some cases drugs seized are not categorically identified by scientific analysis. Where the drug type is easily identifiable, they may have been identified by appearance only.
  • All figures in this answer have been drawn from live administrative data systems which may be amended at any time. Although care is taken when processing and analysing the returns, the detail collected is subject to the inaccuracies inherent in any large scale recording system. The data has been extracted by searching for the exact terms given in the question and not any slang or alternative spellings. The data is not subject to audit.
  • Nearly 10,000 punishments in prison were given for drug offences in 2013.
  • For more details please contact MOJ’s press office on telephone: 020 3334 3536.


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