03 September 2018

BBC Victoria Derbyshire reports on monkey dust – “a public health crisis” in Stoke

It’s being reported as an epidemic in Stoke – a synthetic drug called monkey dust is causing significant health, public order and community safety issues in the city. Staffordshire police have had 950 reports in 3 months relating to monkey dust. These incidents include monkey dust users climbing and jumping off buildings, running through traffic, becoming violent and sustaining serious injuries. Vulnerable people including the homeless community seem to be particularly affected by monkey dust abuse – with wider societal impacts on emergency service workers and the general public. On 15th August 2018, the BBC current affairs programme, Victoria Derbyshire, investigated the monkey dust crisis.

UKAT calls on Public Health England to reclassify monkey dust

Speaking on Victoria Derbyshire, UKAT have called for Public Health England to take immediate action to address the problem.

Paula Reece, Centre Manager at Recovery Lighthouse (a UKAT addiction treatment facility), said: “We are looking for Public Health England to raise awareness around this drug. We’re looking for it to become class A, so it hammers home the horrific nature and effects of this drug. It seems to me that people are getting hooked from their first use and then there is no going back. It’s creating havoc much like spice did in Manchester. […] There needs to be awareness of the mental and bodily effects that this has on people and where this can lead, which is ultimately death.”

Backing up UKAT’s call for monkey dust to be reclassified, Gareth Snell, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: “That fits very clearly with what the local police force are telling me, which is they believe that it shouldn’t be a class B drug. It should be seen as something much more sinister and dangerous. That’s the sort of approach that if the police are calling for it, I want to support.”

By reclassifying monkey dust as a class A drug, harsher penalties would apply to people who are caught dealing the drug. Enquiries by Staffordshire police are continuing, to identify and arrest the main suppliers of monkey dust in the area.

Prioritising drug treatment – including for monkey dust addicts

Gareth Snell MP also highlighted on Victoria Derbyshire that there was a clear need in Stoke for better access to drug treatment services. “It’s got to be seen as a public health issue. The lack of support for people with drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes in the city is having a direct impact. Behind every one of these users is a person who has a chaotic life. We should be doing what we can to help those people get back on track, so they are not using it.”

This adds to the picture of nationwide cutbacks to drug services, impacting upon people suffering from addictions, as well as the wider community. UKAT has recently challenged a number of councils across the country to review their spending cuts to drug and alcohol services, in the light of increasing drug-related deaths.

What is monkey dust?

Monkey dust is a synthetic stimulant, an illegal class B drug (as at August 2018). It comes as a fine powder, white or brownish in colour. News reports suggest that users in Stoke can buy monkey dust for as little as £2. People take the drug in a variety of ways including snorting, smoking, oral ingestion and intravenous usage, either by itself or mixed with other drugs and alcohol.

Commenting on Victoria Derbyshire, scientist Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, said: “There has been some preliminary testing taken place, which seems to imply that this compound that’s circulating is actually MDPHP, which is a slightly newer derivative of a controlled substance known as MDPV (a cathinone that was banned in 2010 and is class B). […] It’s not fully understood in terms of its chemistry and dosing – and that might mean individuals don’t know how much to take and therefore that’s why you’re seeing these significant effects.”

What are the effects of monkey dust?

Monkey dust usage can bring about highly unpredictable behaviour, extreme paranoia, mood swings including aggression, euphoria, visual and auditory hallucinations, numbness and depression. Monkey dust users can also experience convulsions, psychosis and fluctuations in body temperature. Anecdotal reports suggest that some monkey dust users believe they have superhuman powers or strength – however, it’s important to note that these reported incidents of very extreme behaviour may be isolated; certainly, it’s not clear in many cases exactly which drug or combination of substances people have been using.

Speaking to the Victoria Derbyshire programme, monkey dust user, Smithy, commented about his cycle of addiction: “I hate the fact that I like it. I hate it every time I have it but I still have it – cos it’s everywhere. Say if you’ve got another addiction to alcohol if somebody is smoking that around you, you’d smoke that just to stop you rattling through the heroin or alcohol.”

Michael also spoke to Victoria Derbyshire about his experience of using monkey dust: “At first I started smoking it, then I was injecting it as well. […] The thing that stopped me was I found a large bag of it, so I had a large amount of it in one go. […] I had hallucinations to the point where I saw myself hanging from a rope. […] Since then, I’ve just been clean away from drugs.”

In terms of the devastating effects of monkey dust abuse in Stafford, William Morris, a worker with homeless people, said: “We’ve seen a growth in the use of monkey dust probably in the last nine months to a year. It is at a crisis point. […] It comes out a complex issue around homelessness and vulnerability – because of the cheap price of the product, it is the drug of choice for those who are on the edge and the margins of our society. Physically, it’s the most challenging experience – the destruction of individuals, is horrendous.”

Have people died from using monkey dust?

There are conflicting reports on deaths connected to monkey dust use – some say it’s only a matter of time before people die from overdose or misadventure whilst using monkey dust; others say lives have already been lost.

The BBC reported on 15th August that no-one has yet died from using the drug.

However, local news articles say there have already been multiple deaths connected to monkey dust abuse. On 16th August 2018, for example, the Stoke Sentinel reported on monkey dust fatalities. North Staffordshire deputy coroner Anthony Curzon “revealed the forensic science lab which covers the West Midlands area has already dealt with at least six fatal cases linked to monkey dust in the last 18 months.”

Monkey dust addiction and complex needs

What’s vital to recognise is that monkey dust use in Stoke seems to be largely affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society, who have multiple and complex needs. The question of access to drug treatment services should remain forefront in this debate, in order to tackle the crisis effectively and responsibly. It’s easy to get caught up with news reports of extreme, anti-social or criminal behaviours – but this focuses attention upon vulnerable individuals and it could divert the discussion away from prioritising treatment and support for those affected by monkey dust addiction.

Similar to the problems in recent years with cheap, strong alcohol, in towns such as Ipswich, Brighton and Portsmouth, often people have many other support needs beyond substance addiction. They may be homeless, at serious risk of ill health or physical harm due to their lack of safe housing. Some will have experienced trauma in the past, including sexual, emotional or physical abuse. They may have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health disorder. They may be suffering from one of many physical diseases. Very often, nutrition is extremely poor, due to lack of money and inability to prepare fresh food. The focus must be on intensive treatment and ongoing support, to help people escape the destructive cycle of addiction and begin to rebuild their lives.

At UKAT, we have a range of specialist treatment options for people with multiple and complex needs, including very cost-effective treatment available to NHS or local authority referrers. Find out more about UKAT treatment centres.

The Victoria Derbyshire report on monkey dust is available to view on BBC iPlayer until 13th September 2018. The item begins at 1:15:45.

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