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The impact of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act on synthetic cannabinoid use within the homeless population: markets, content and user harms

Ralphs, rob and Gray, Paul and Sutcliffe, Oliver B (2021) The impact of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act on synthetic cannabinoid use within the homeless population: markets, content and user harms. International Journal of Drug Policy. ISSN 0955-3959

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Abstract

Background: On 26 May 2016, the UK introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act. The Act made it an offence to produce, supply, or offer to supply, any psychoactive substance likely to be used for its psychoactive effects. While a Home Office review of the Act in 2018 proclaimed that the Act had been successful in achieving its main goal of preventing the open sale of psychoactive substances, significantly, the review acknowledged that high levels of synthetic cannabinoid use remain among vulnerable user groups, in particular the homeless population. Methods: The research adopted an innovative interdisciplinary approach drawing on sociology and chemistry. The sociological element involved 82 face-to-face qualitative semi-structured interviews with 37 homeless synthetic cannabinoid users, 45 stakeholders, and over 100 hours of fieldwork observations. The chemical analysis element involved the testing (using Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) of 69 synthetic cannabinoid street samples obtained by a local police force. Results: The introduction of the Act was associated with a number of significant changes to the synthetic cannabinoid market, including the integration of synthetic cannabinoids into the existing illicit street market, new dealers, the adoption of more targeted and aggressive supply practices, and variability in the content and potency of synthetic cannabinoids. Combined, these changes have increased the risk of harm to homeless users and homeless sector staff and resulted in a concomitant increase in the demand on emergency services. Conclusion: The foreseen concerns that the Act would result in detrimental market changes and increased harms to vulnerable user groups have been manifested in the homeless population. The failure of the Act to reduce synthetic cannabinoid use within this group, combined with the increased risk of individual and societal harm, highlights the importance of reducing the demand for synthetic cannabinoids.

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