Police in Sheffield city centre say they are in a ‘far better position’ when it comes to tackling the scourge of spice abuse than they were 12 months ago.
They claim a major crackdown on the use and supply of the synthetic form of cannabis, famous for leaving users in a trance-like state, is beginning to pay dividends.
But they accept there is much more work to do to help vulnerable users of the drug and bring to justice the dealers exploiting them.
Over the last year, police have carried out 14 investigations into the suspected supply of spice, with charges brought against seven alleged dealers and five cases still ongoing.
They have also helped users - who are often among the most vulnerable members of society - access the support available in Sheffield, where a dedicated spice clinic opened last summer.
And while they say their primary aim is always to assist users to kick their habit, legal action has been taken against those declining the support available and continuing to beg or engage in other anti-social behaviour connected to spice.
On Thursday, officers from the Sheffield Central neighbourhood policing team brought together their counterparts from town and city centres including Derby, Leicester and Nottingham to look at the best ways to address spice abuse and the problems it poses.
Following the meeting, The Star caught up with Sheffield Central officers Sergeant Scott Szymczak and Inspector John Mallows, and with Superintendent Paul McCurry, who oversees neighbourhood policing in South Yorkshire, to learn more about the tactics being employed in the war on spice.
Sergeant Szymczak said: “We're in a far better position than we were 12 months ago and that’s not just down to police but to all our partners, including the local authority, health service, social care teams and the voluntary sector.
“Our approach has been to focus on the dealers and to direct users to support, with court only used as a last option for them.”
Thursday’s meeting followed the UK’s first dedicated spice conference, which was hosted in Sheffield before Christmas as part of the Problem Solving and Demand Reduction Programme.
Sergeant Szymczak said it was important to share with and learn from colleagues in other city centres around the UK, many of which are similarly blighted by spice use.
He said Thursday's meeting highlighted the need for a ‘consistent message’ from all partners and for a truly ‘wraparound’ service to help those affected by spice.
One of the difficulties, he explained, was getting spice users to accept the help on offer, with experience suggesting they are more likely to listen to someone who has been through drug addition than to a professional support worker with no first-hand experience of what they are going through.
Inspector Mallows claimed that in order to combat spice it was important to listen to users’ experiences and learn what led them to begin taking the drug, so police and their partners could understand how best to help them.
“People who use spice are generally among the most vulnerable members of society for lots of reasons,” he said.
“We need to understand their journey because that will help us better offer support.”
He also described spice as a much-misunderstood drug, with many people not appreciating how different strains vary so vastly and the variety hitting the street one day may be much more powerful than that from the day before.
He suggested there was a case for a national public health campaign to increase awareness of spice and what to do if you see someone in difficulty having taken the drug.
Police say estimates by Sheffield Drug and Alcohol/Domestic Abuse Coordination Team (DACT) suggest there are around 200-250 regular users of spice in the city.
Of those, around 20-25 are considered to be ‘problematic’ or ‘chaotic’ users who are more likely to be found collapsed on the street having taken the drug or to engage in begging or other anti-social behaviour linked with spice.
Police have used dispersal orders connected to spice and anti-social behaviour in Sheffield city centre around 10 times in the last year, giving them the power to move on people who are causing or considered likely to cause trouble.
They say these powers are only used when deemed necessary and proportionate, and claim there is no evidence this simply shunts the problem further afield, with spice use not 'on the radar’ of police teams in the city’s suburbs or in Rotherham as they believe it would be were this the case.
Over the last 18 months, 44 community protection warnings have been issued to people in connection with begging and spice use in Sheffield city centre.
When someone is issued with one of these warnings, they are also given a dedicated drop-in appointment within a week to see a support worker so their needs can be assessed and help offered.
If they take up this support, further action is not taken but of those 44 individuals nine have subsequently been given a full notice which it is a criminal offence to breach.
Over the last year, 13 people have been charged with possession of spice or received cautions after being caught with the drug for personal use, and seven investigations are ongoing.
Police have stepped up patrols in the worst affected areas, around Sheffield Cathedral and the High Street, and mobile CCTV cameras have been used to gain evidence and deter spice use and dealing.
Businesses had complained that spice use and the associated anti-social behaviour was deterring people from visiting the city centre.
But police have met city centre firms several times in recent months and say the evidence from those meetings and from a survey completed by businesses is that the tactics being employed are making a difference.
“The feedback from the majority of businesses is that things are getting better,” said Sergeant Szymczak.
“That’s obviously a positive message but by no means are we taking our foot off the gas. We're very aware that work needs to continue.”
Superintendent McCurry said it was important to talk to colleagues from around the country through events like Thursday’s meeting, which took place at the Sheffield Hallam Students' Union building.
“The problems caused by the use and supply of synthetic cannabinoids, commonly referred to as spice, cannot be underestimated,” he said.
“The impact is far reaching. It is having a huge effect on policing, but there are also ripples, beyond local authority drug and alcohol teams, into housing and the NHS; amongst this there are also vulnerable people, who we have to listen to.”
Police in Sheffield are planning similar events about spice involving partners from the health service and support agencies.