Talking Point: High water mark

Written by on 11 June 2010

Besides a warning last September from the then governor of Perth prison, Mike Inglis, that novel psychoactive substances are “starting to gain prominence”, use of ‘legal highs’ across the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) estate has been largely anecdotal. It is with some interest, then, that I scoured the latest batch of prisoner surveys published the week before last, which, for the first time, included questions on NPS use.

It turns out a quarter (23 per cent) had used legal highs before going into prison. In prison, eight per cent of prisoners said they had used such substances, with synthetic cannabis again the most commonly used (54 per cent), followed by downers (43 per cent).

Of course, these figures should be taken in context. Successive surveys show a decline in self-reported drug use since the early 2000s, with the number of prisoners reporting they have ‘ever used illegal drugs in prison’ falling from 58 per cent to 38 per cent in the space of 12 years. Interestingly, of those who self-identify in the surveys, more appear to have done so recently, with an eight per cent rise in December 2011 and December 2013 respectively. That aside, ‘legal highs’ are in many ways the least of prison bosses’ concerns given use while in custody remains a fifth of illegal alternatives.

The statistics provide a forewarning. Firstly, treatment services in the community – never mind in prison – are still catching up in terms of how to cope with this phenomenon. Secondly, detection requires a fresh approach. Thirdly, deterrence – ‘legal highs’ are on a list of materials not approved under prison rules – throws up additional challenges, the assumption being that conduct hearings will look more favourably on substances deemed legal than those which are not.

To their credit, SPS HQ has been working with Crew, Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF), and staff and prisoners at HMP Edinburgh to develop materials to support prisoner education on NPS. Polmont has worked with SDF to formulate a plan on NPS work for young offenders in their custody. And a more thorough insight will ideally emerge once a research study, conducted by a team of forensic toxicologists at the University of Glasgow, reports this summer after looking at the prevalence of NPS in the prisoner population across eight establishments.

While eight per cent usage is in no way the disaster story often evoked when ‘legal highs’ are discussed in public forums, it serves as a reminder that no one is immune. We are in uncharted waters here and everyone must pick up a paddle

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