Westminster Council leader Nickie Aiken: 'Nobody wants to arrest the most vulnerable in our society. The last thing we need is these people in police cells. What they need is help'
Published: 27 January, 2017
by WILLIAM McLENNAN and ALINA POLIANSKAYA
USERS of highly-addictive synthetic cannabis can now be prosecuted following a controversial change in the law which has been criticised for criminalising the vulnerable.
The sale and production of the drug known as “spice”, which had been readily available from shops in the West End and was said to be having a “devastating” impact on homeless addicts, was outlawed in May with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act.
Under the act, which banned a range of so-called “legal highs”, users of the drug could not be prosecuted, with government ministers responsible for pushing the legislation stating at the time: “We do not want to criminalise individuals for possession.”
But spice, officially known as a synthetic cannabinoid, was quietly moved under the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and reclassified as a Class-B drug in December, making it illegal to posses even small amounts.
Westminster Council leader Nickie Aiken said this week that police in the borough would be using their new powers to search addicts and confiscate the drug, rather than seeking to prosecute them for possession.
Speaking in Porchester Hall on Wednesday, she said: “Nobody wants to arrest the most vulnerable in our society. The last thing we need is these people in police cells. What they need is help.”
Cllr Aiken said she had lobbied government to make the change after witnessing the “absolutely dreadful problem”, which is particularly acute around Soho and the Strand.
But campaigners, who call for reform to our drug laws, have criticised the move for needlessly criminalising users and called it a “missed opportunity to continue a path of reform”.
Neil Woods, a former police officer who spent more than a decade arresting drug dealers, said: “These people are self-medicating for the trauma and the situation that they have found themselves in and we further traumatise them by criminalising them and possibly them ending up prison. And we know, of course, the prisons are in crisis – so who does this help?”
While the use of spice is believed to have decreased following last year’s ban, it continues to be a problem among homeless addicts and the trade has been driven from high street shops into the hands of drug dealers.
Announcing the move in December, Sarah Newton MP, the minister for vulnerability, safeguarding and countering extremism, said: “It will now be illegal to possess synthetic cannabinoids such as spice, sending out a clear message that we recognise how dangerous these drugs are and we will not tolerate them in this country.”