The English city of Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands is reportedly suffering from an “epidemic” of people using a synthetic drug known on the street as Monkey Dust. One police officer interviewed in a recent Sky News report described the process of restraining Monkey Dust users as “dealing with someone who thinks they are the Incredible Hulk”.
But our ongoing research raises questions about how widespread and localised use of the drug really is.
Monkey Dust is a type of new psychoactive substance (NPS) that had already been banned in the UK prior to a 2016 blanket ban of all NPS products. It is made from a chemical known as a cathinone called MDPHP and has a stimulant affect. It is often likened to other cathinones such as MDVP.
In early September, the negative and addictive effects of Monkey Dust led the Staffordshire police and crime commissioner to suggest that it should be reclassified as a Class A rather than Class B drug. However, changing the classification is unlikely to address user levels, or the current behaviour associated with the drug that is causing concern. It would simply enable a longer prison sentence for possession and supply. And prisons are not without drug problems, with 60-90% of inmates thought to be using NPS.
In August, Staffordshire police said they were getting around ten calls per day related to Monkey Dust issues. These calls may be about the same situation, rather than separate incidents, and it’s unclear whether the incidents actually involved Monkey Dust, or whether other substances were being used that could have exacerbated the situation.
The 2016-17 Crime Survey for England and Wales highlighted an overall decrease in NPS users immediately following the 2016 ban, and shows that other drugs, such as heroin, have higher user levels. But the ban may have impacted honesty levels on whether people disclosed NPS usage that year, and young people under 16, homeless people and those in prison are not included in the survey. Internationally, it’s believed that NPS use is on the increase, but is still less of an issue than other drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Who is using Monkey Dust?
As levels of Monkey Dust use are based on self-reported information, rather than forensic drug testing, it’s hard to tell if people are taking MDPHP or another NPS product. There are hundreds of NPS products and they mimic a range of drugs.
A small-scale research study my colleague Em Temple-Malt and I did with student researchers in Stoke asked homeless people, young people at college and professionals working to tackle drug issues about their knowledge and usage levels of NPS. We saw little evidence of an epidemic – defined as as a “widespread occurence” across the city. Our study was small, with a total of 41 participants and aimed to give a snapshot of what was happening in Stoke-on-Trent to help inform future drug service development.
Less than 7% of the homeless people and college students we chatted to reported using NPS regularly. However, they talked about friends who used and concerns about aggressive behaviour and other effects of NPS drugs that they had witnessed. A small group of professionals also told us that vulnerable groups in society were likely to be using NPS and the negative effects of some of the drugs.
One homeless hostel user we spoke to reported being “done” for “breach of the peace” by the police after taking Monkey Dust and being caught “arguing with a garden gnome”. While on the surface this might sound like a low level offence, some of those we spoke to said they had witnessed concerning behaviours by people who had used NPS.
In Stoke-on-Trent, the police have said strains of Monkey Dust are causing some users to become “extremely agitated and paranoid”, with some climbing up onto buildings or running into traffic. But this is only the case for some users and not all. Such chaotic drug usage usually affects a small group of the population who often require resource intense interventions, inclusive of assistance from emergency services.
Nationally, first responders and the police are reporting aggression and violence provoked by NPS. Research in police custody suits in the northeast of England found that staff were concerned about how to deal with aggression and unpredictable behaviour from NPS use.
Help for those addicted
In my own experience of working with drug and alcohol users, being intoxicated can become a form or escapism. And for homeless people, there are lots of traumatic experiences which may lead them to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
One of the recommendations emerging from our research is for better addiction support for vulnerable people within homeless hostels, such as an on-site drop-in service. Still, underlying issues that trigger people to use drugs also need addressing, including reducing negative experiences in the family home, such as child abuse, unemployment and poverty.
But there have been national funding cuts to the health and public health sector and to drug support services run by the voluntary sector. Given the role police play in tackling drug issues, cuts to their budgets are also a concern. It could be considered that an epidemic of austerity has left police, emergency services, public health and support organisations with inadequate resources to handle drug-induced violence and aggression.