Emergency services received nearly 1,200 calls last year about suspected spice users reduced to a trance-like state on South Yorkshire's streets.
The alarming figure emerged as Sheffield hosted the UK's first national spice conference, dedicated to tackling the use of the debilitating drug which has left towns and city centres up and down the country resembling scenes from a zombie movie.
Around 120 people from across the UK, including police, healthcare workers and charity staff, gathered at the Copthorne Hotel on Bramall Lane today to share their experiences and discuss how best to address the scourge.
The conference was part of the Problem Solving and Demand Reduction Programme, which is run by South Yorkshire Police in an effort to get forces across the country working better together and with other partners.
Detective Chief Inspector Paul Wilson, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “In 2017, we had 1,174 calls from members of the public in South Yorkshire with concerns for people who were believed to have taken spice and were publicly intoxicated. In 80 per cent of those cases, an ambulance was required to attend.
“This conference is a chance to talk about the issues we’re all facing from public intoxication, not just through spice but from alcohol and other drugs, and how we can better work together to provide a more joined up approach to this very visible problem and help people make better choices to improve their lives.”
DCI Wilson told how delegates at the conference heard from one spice user who likened taking the drug to switching an ‘off button’.
He said the drug is popular with homeless people, who use it to blot out the harsh realities of their lives and tend to gather in built-up areas where they feel safer.
And he described how there is often a complex combination of factors behind their spice habit, from family problems to mental health issues, which require support from a range of agencies.
In Doncaster, a pop-up hub has been set up where users can see everyone from GPs to social workers in one place, and enjoy a hot drink and some kind words.
DCI Wilson said police were focused on helping users access the support they need, while targeting the dealers who are ‘profiting from other people's misery’.
“In Doncaster over the last couple of months, we’ve got probably half a dozen dealers who are now in prison,” he added.
Spice is a type of synthetic cannabis, which DCI Wilson said can be up to 800 times stronger than conventional cannabis. It was one of several so-called ‘legal highs’ which were criminalised in 2016.
Assistant Chief Constable Jason Harwin, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead for drugs, said: “You can go to any town or city centre at the moment and see the effects of spice…
“As services, we haven't done as much as we could do together before now. We’ve primarily focused on enforcement when that has a limited effect…
“All the main partners recognise they have a role to play, which is why we’re here having the conversation about what we’re doing now and how that could be improved.”
In Sheffield, the council opened a specialist spice clinic this summer and police have used dispersal orders to move on spice users responsible for anti-social behaviour in the city centre, while directing them to the support available.