Possession of a drug popular with homeless people in Westminster, which can cause severe psychotic episodes and is said to have withdrawal effects more severe than heroin and crack cocaine, has been made illegal.
A recent change in the law now means anyone caught with spice, one of the street names given to synthetic cannabis, could be imprisoned.
Police in Westminster are now carrying out operations in the borough to advise the community of the new legislation, following a surge in the number of destitute people using the drug in the area.
Operation Kaskara has also been set up this month, which has seen a dispersal zone and officers from the Safer Neighbourhoods teams deployed across the borough to deal with antisocial behaviour and crime related to spice.
Westminster City Council revealed last year that its staff and homeless services were speaking to vulnerable people about the dangers of the drug, with figures showing 22% of the 430 people staying in Westminster hostels in the first four months of 2016 were using the drug .
In December 2016, the government classified strains of synthetic cannabinoids as a Class B controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA).
It came on the back of expert advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the harm associated with these substances which are similar to drugs already controlled under the MDA. Prior to this time it was only illegal to deal the drug.
Anyone caught with the drug, which can also cause users to experience distressing hallucinations, vomiting and seizures, faces up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
Police have welcomed the change, which will allow officers to stop, search and arrest individuals in possession of "spice".
They will also be able to seize the drug to protect vulnerable people from its dangerous effects.
Over recent months police have experienced first hand the dangers of the drug, including a number of vulnerable people collapsing in the street or falling unconscious, as well as an increase in antisocial behaviour and violent crime associated with use of the drug.
Detective superintendent Jane Corrigan, from Westminster Borough, said: “From late December into early January, we have been actively involved in educating users about the dangers, signposting users to support services to get the message out there.
“Operation Kaskara aims to tackle the impact of spice within the heart of London providing a deterrent to those who want to deal or use it on the streets.”
'Absolute game changer'
Cllr Nickie Aiken, Westminster City Council cabinet member for public protection, said: “This is absolutely game changing and will make a real tangible difference in our ability to support vulnerable people on our streets.
“It is heartbreaking to see people whose lives have been utterly destroyed by this terrible drug.
"However, this is a decisive moment and Westminster City Council, the police and the government are fighting back against this destructive drug.”
Previous efforts to tackle those selling the drug in Westminster saw officers use a range of tactics to disrupt the sellers.
This resulted in 18 arrests for supply offences and seizure of large quantities of the drug.
Operation Kaskara has already resulted in five arrests.
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