News | Thursday, 8th December 2016

Lucrative legal high profits pulling former inmates back into prison

Researchers challenge Ministry of Justice plans to tackle Spice epidemic

FORMER prisoners are deliberately getting sent back to prison because the profits to be made from selling legal highs are so lucrative, new research shows.

Prices can jump 33-fold once the so-called legal highs cross into prisons which is providing an enticing incentive to return to prison to make money.

Findings published today in the International Journal of Drug Policy show a gram of synthetic cannabinoids can cost £3 outside of prison but can fetch up to £100 when sold inside.

Synthetic cannabinoids – often known as Spice or Mamba – have become so profitable that the traditional drugs market in heroin and cannabis has collapsed.


Psychoactive legal highs have swept through the prison system with devastating effects for mental health, violent behaviour, physical wellbeing and offender rehabilitation.

Due to a combination of huge profits, no current drug test and easy access to the substances, synthetic cannabinoids are now the dominant drug among inmates.

Harmful effects include extreme violence, psychosis, addiction, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Novel smuggling methods include the use of drones or spraying on to children’s drawings. Once inside the prison, the attractiveness is further bolstered by the inability of traditional drug tests to detect Spice.


Lead researcher Dr Rob Ralphs, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “It is no exaggeration to say that the synthetic cannabinoid market has exploded and unleashed a series of devastating impacts on prisons, prisoners and prison staff.

“Traditional drugs have almost been wiped out and replaced with these extremely powerful synthetic cannabinoids because prisoners are attracted by high profit margins and their lack of detection in drug tests.

“Our research found that prisoners’ motivation for taking synthetic cannabinoids was to escape the boredom of prison life and to avoid positive drug tests but their impact is extremely serious. The potency and addictiveness have been compared to heroin, violent incidents have increased, and they wreak harm on prisoners’ mental and physical health.”

The impact has been outlined in previous HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports demonstrating a link between Spice consumption and steep increases in serious assaults, self-harm and suicides.

Licence recall

A key finding from the study was the regular abuse of the prison licence recall system, which aims to deter reoffending. However, such is the incentive to sell legal highs that recently released prisoners commit minor infractions, such as missing probation meetings, to be sent back into prison.

Prisoners reported being able to make £3,000 in four weeks by bringing in an ounce (28 grams) of synthetic cannabinoids whilst others reported being offered £1,000 to bring in larger amounts on recall.

In direct contrast to the recent prison reform white paper that outlines Ministry of Justice proposals to expand drug testing, researchers propose a strategy that places harm reduction and education at the centre and a move away from traditional drug detection.

The latest update from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction identifies 160 new strains of synthetic cannabinoids since the original variant of Spice was banned in 2009.

Policy review

Dr Ralphs said: “Drug testing policies should be reviewed. The introduction of testing for drugs such as cannabis in 1996 has led to 20 years of more problematic drug use. Firstly heroin and more recently the desire to avoid positive drug tests has fuelled the demand for synthetic cannabinoids.

“With so many strains, developing accurate mandatory drug testing is expensive and flawed. We recommend diverting money wasted on drug testing into prisoner education and training and staffing.”

Research was conducted in a Category B male English prison via interviews with prisoners and prison staff, focus groups and restorative justice sessions.


The paper, Adding Spice to the Porridge: The development of a synthetic cannabinoid market in an English prison, is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

It can be found online here:

For more information or to speak to Dr Rob Ralphs, please contact:

Chris Morris, Press Officer, Manchester Metropolitan University
Email: Tel: 0161 247 2184 Mob: 07734 689358

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