Synthetic cannabis smuggled into secure mental health unit linked to death of patient
Harmful drug known as spice was found by police at Highgate Mental Health Centre
28 September, 2017 — By William McLennan
Nature Barr’s health had deteriorated rapidly while smoking spice
SYNTHETIC cannabis which had been smuggled into a psychiatric hospital may have “caused or contributed” to the death of a keen musician who was being treated at a secure ward, the New Journal can reveal.
Nature Barr collapsed and died at Highgate Mental Health Centre with police officers investigating his death later discovering a bag of the drug, known as spice, on the ward in Dartmouth Park Hill.
Described by friends as having a “gentle spirit and positive energy”, the 43-year-old was no stranger to mental health services and an inquest into his death heard that he had a “long- standing history” of psychiatric problems and drug use.
But his deterioration, which is believed to have coincided with increased use of spice, was so drastic that it shocked staff at a mental health charity where he volunteered to help others going through difficult times.
It is one of at least five deaths in Camden in the past two years that have been linked to the use of the spice, which was outlawed in May last year.
Once widely available alongside smoking pipes and papers in Camden Town gift shops, its sale was pushed underground by the ban. Healthcare workers have said it is now being sold on the street and is still widely used.
Details of the death of Mr Barr, who had changed his name from Howard Jeffers after he embraced Buddhism, have only now come to light after documentation was obtained by the New Journal.
He was being treated for schizoaffective disorder, but had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act in February 2016 when his conditioned worsened.
An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court earlier this year heard that staff at the Highgate hospital were concerned that he had been able to obtain spice from fellow patients but no test was available to detect its presence.
He collapsed and suffered a fatal heart attack on the ward on February 23 last year, the day after absconding from the unit.
Another patient also had to be rushed to A&E after collapsing on the same day.
Officers investigating the death found a bag of spice, branded Kronic, on the ward.
This brand, which came in a black rectangular, foil packet, was widely sold in Camden before the ban.
As revealed by the New Journal last year, it moved to London after being outlawed in New Zealand and was said to be having a “devastating” impact on homeless addicts in Camden Town.
It caused short-lived psychotic episodes, often with a loss of motor skills that led the tabloid press to label users as “zombies”. It is known to police and medics as a “novel psychoactive substance” or “NPS”.
After hearing evidence of Mr Barr’s final few days at the hospital, assistant coroner Richard Brittain said that he was concerned he “may have used NPS during his admission to hospital, which may have caused or contributed to his death”.
Determining the exact cause of death was complicated as synthetic cannabis, unlike other long-standing illegal drugs, was difficult to detect by tests, he said.
Peter Leigh, director of music therapy charity Key Changes, said the whole team were shocked by the death of Mr Barr, who had been a “familiar presence at our studios and concerts, first as an artist exploring his seemingly never-ending creative ideas, and later as a volunteer providing support with our social media as a roving photographer”.
Paying tribute to Mr Barr, who lived in Barnsbury, he added: “Despite some difficult times Nature always retained his gentle spirit and positive energy. His warmth, openness and genuine interest in others and the world around him, not forgetting his cheeky sense of humour and infectious laugh, endeared him to all those he met.”
Camden and Islington NHS trust, which runs the hospital, has teamed up with researchers at the University of Hertfordshire to try to tackle problems linked to the use of spice, along with developing ways of detecting its use in blood and urine.
A spokesman said: “The increasing prevalence of the new psychoactive drugs, including synthetic cannabis, poses some additional challenges and issues within mental health care.
“This is a complex and developing area and with the support of our specialist researchers we are working hard to ensure our care management approaches are as effective as possible in meeting the needs of our service users.
“As with any incident, such as the tragic death of Nature Barr, we review the particular circumstances in detail and amend our care processes where appropriate.”
Research finds link between ‘legal highs’ and rage
By Tom Foot
NEW research into the behaviour of sectioned mental health patients has revealed an alarming link between “legal highs” and explosive rage.
Analysis of more than 440 admissions to Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust (C&I) showed the vast majority of patients who had been taking “novel psychoactive substances” (NPS) are “strongly associated with violence” before and during their admission.
Staff at Highgate Mental Health Centre, in Dartmouth Park Hill, have reported a rise in attacks by patients who smoke legal highs that have resulted in cuts, bruising and even head injuries. There is a stark contrast in behaviours between psychoactive drug-takers and non-users at the centre, according to the research.
Highgate mental health centre consultant Dr Neil Stewart said: “Our research shows an increased level of violence amongst service users who misuse NPS and are being admitted to acute psychiatric beds. This is leading to enormous challenges on how to manage them safely as well as creating safe working environments for our dedicated mental health care professionals.”
The Highgate Novel Psychoactive Substance (NPS) Research Group believe that synthetic cannabinoids – known as spice and black mamba – have a much stronger chemical impact on the brain than natural cannabis.
On the wards, Highgate staff nurse Cara Coombs said: “The influence of psychoactive substances has been really noticeable – there’s been a big spike in violence and aggression by service users, both before they get admitted and then while they are on our ward. “Generally, it’s assaults and aggressive anti-social behaviour which are very prevalent, including damage to ward property and verbal threats to staff, but also to service users’ families, other service users, and ward visitors. We also see very extreme levels of violence fairly frequently.”
The research, published in Journal of Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, showed that over a six-month period, 13 per cent of admissions to acute psychiatric wards were NPS users. Eighty per cent of these admissions were “strongly associated with violence before and during admission”.
Dr Abu Shafi, lead researcher in the Highgate NPS Research Group, added: “Our data currently suggests that NPS pose one of the most significant and growing current threats to mental health services, which will spread to mainstream health and public health services.”