Man using Spice K2 legal highs
A man prepares to smoke K2 or 'Spice', a synthetic marijuana drug, which can cause extreme reactions in some users Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rampant legal high use in prisons is placing severe strain on local ambulance services, according to a new study into convicts' changing patterns of substance abuse. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said so many prisoners are falling ill after taking drugs such as Spice (also known as K2) and Mamba, that psychoactive substances now form the most serious threat to safety and security in British jails.

In one shocking incident at an unnamed prison, every single ambulance crew in the local area had to be deployed at the same time just to treat inmates who had fallen ill after taking legal highs. Incidents involving Mamba – a synthetic form of cannabis – are now so common that prison officers use the term "mambulance" when medical help is required.

Symptoms include blackouts, fits and other negative effects, with multiple ambulances often required to attend the scene when more than one prisoner falls ill at the same time. New psychoactive substances, known as NPSs, have also been linked to rising levels of violence in prisons.

"This not only put individual prisoners at risk, but also placed excessive demand on resources that were required for the local community too," the HMIP report said. "Some prisons have required so many ambulance attendances that community resources were depleted."

Prison drug culture

HMIP drew evidence from 61 prison inspections and from a survey of nearly 11,000 prisoners in order to work out the most serious threats to safety in British prisons. The report also outlined chilling new drug-related practices and behaviour since the arrival of NPSs.

It found that in some instances freed prisoners were deliberately breaking the terms of their licence in order to be sent back to prisons where they would smuggle in legal highs. Drones, catapults and even potatoes laced with psychoactive substances are other ways prisoners get the drugs into prisons, with inmates taking it in turns to act as a "spotter" for new deliveries flying over the walls.

Some inmates have also been dubbed "spice pigs" because they are either forced or willingly volunteer to put their health at risk in order to test the potency of new batches. Drug disputes also transcend prison walls, with the family and friends of prisoners often forced to assume debts.