Streets of the ‘spice zombies’: Dependence and poverty stigma in times of austerity, Crime Media Culture, 2019

Streets of the ‘spice zombies’: Dependence and poverty stigma in times of austerity

Liviu Alexandrescu

School of History, Philosophy and Culture, Oxford Brookes University

Crime Media Culture, 2019

Following the 2016 general ban on new psychoactive substances, synthetic cannabinoids (‘spice’-type drugs) have moved into unregulated street markets and have become popular among homeless populations in the United Kingdom. Images of so-called ‘spice zombies’, rough sleepers in public spaces experiencing severe substance-induced fits, have been used by local and national media to suggest the growing scale of the problem. This article proposes that such depictions should be read through a cultural analysis rooted in the political economy of austerity policies, where the twofold stigma of substance and welfare dependencies directs guilt at the poor, concealing the systemic cruelty of benefits reforms. Through the circulation of such tropes and the ridiculing of a superfluous abject underclass that embodies them, media and political discourses of the ‘broken society’ highlight an evident need for welfare reduction and more generally for the austerity project.

Austerity, dependence, media, new psychoactive substances, stigma, synthetic cannabinoids


SPICE it calls you from your deepest depths and if you ignore it then it sends out your worst demons and makes them feel like yesterday. Nightmares you have had as a child, acts of violence you have seen that sickened you, memories of family funerals! You name it, the devil known as spice regurgitates it and amplifies your pain, hurt and fears – they all come back to life in 3D. (Morgan, 2017: 52–53)

A woman sits on the ground, one hand propped into the tarmac, the other on the stomach as she convulses, tilting her head back and forward among erratic groans of suffocation. The camera lens approaches and lights up her twitching face, framed by a black hoodie top that draws her silhouette out of the dim background (Figure 1). The 28 second-long mobile phone clip was shot by a man cycling at two in the morning through Midsummer Common, an area
of parkland in Cambridge. The local Cambridge News newspaper posted it on its website as ‘shocking “spice zombie” footage’, trusting the cyclist’s assumption that she had taken ‘spice’: ‘I’ve seen documentaries about people taking spice, and that’s exactly what it looked like she’d been doing’ (Elliott, 2017: para. 11); ‘it was like something out of a horror film’ (para. 9).
A set of photos and clips taken by the Manchester Evening News’s photographers describes ‘a weekday afternoon’ in the city centre’s Piccadilly Gardens square and warns of ‘disturbing images’. Blurred faces and trembling bodies are shown desperately trying to anchor themselves on their feet and to keep from fainting, while others lie on the ground agonising or take refuge inside phone boxes to shake off catatonic fits – all to the tune of everyday business and street life. The title of the lengthy reportage that accompanies the images mentions ‘the pale, wasted figures caught in a Spice nightmare’. The sight of people in ‘zombie-like states’, stumbling around or worse, defecating or vomiting in the street, has become as common to workers in the area ‘as someone selling coffee’ (Williams, 2017: para. 45), the article details.
Such scenes will have become familiar to newspaper readerships in the United Kingdom, more so after the introduction of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act (Home Office, 2016). Meant to provide a blanket ban on all new psychoactive substances (NPS) (see Chatwin et al., 2017; Measham and Newcombe, 2017; Potter and Chatwin, 2018), the new drugs legislation was criticised by experts for its ambiguities and potential displacement effects – pushing ‘head shop’ products onto street markets for drugs (Reuter and Pardo, 2017; Stevens et al., 2015), a trend later confirmed by the government’s own assessments (Home Office, 2018). Following a surge in media exposure (Alexandrescu, 2018a), research literature (EMCDDA, 2017, 2018; Ralphs and Gray, 2018; Ralphs et al., 2017; User Voice, 2016) has also observed an intensification of Spice/NPS-related problems among vulnerable populations such as prison inmates and rough sleepers.
Spice-type products, sold globally as herbal blends and smoked like naturally-occurring cannabis (see Griffiths et al., 2010), account for around a quarter (179) of the over 670 NPS monitored at present by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA, 2018). Drug workers and media reports pointed out that in the UK spice strains, variations of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (synthetic cannabinoids or SCRAs, for short), have been made more dangerous once absorbed into illicit distribution flows, possibly adulterated with other psychoactive substances and varying in potency, further leading to overdoses and aggression among users (Doward, 2017; Lusher, 2017). Spice (used as a general label for SCRAs) acquired the reputation of a ‘zombie drug’ largely from its visible degrading effects on homeless populations in deprived areas of England and Wales.
With it, there has also appeared the media cliché of the ‘spice zombie’, contoured and caricatured through (occasionally reader-generated) images and footage of rough sleepers lying numb on street pavements and doorways or moving chaotically through town centres, overpowered by substance-induced seizures. Such visual depictions of unproductive bodies are situated here in a larger symbolic economy of austerity policies and poverty shaming (Alexandrescu, 2017). They are understood as channelling condemnation of the abject and ‘undeserving’ poor and aiding to legitimise anti-welfare measures as political common sense and cultural consensus (Barton and Davis, 2018; Jensen and Tyler, 2015).
[Figure 1. Still of ‘spice zombie pleading for help’. Source: Elliott (2017).]
This article traces the stigmatisation of people using spice back to long-entrenched notions of welfare and substance dependence. It aims to show how the troubling symbolism of the ‘spice zombie’ threads through the moral ground of self-abandonment to both addictive substances and state help. This underlies the tensions aroused by the presence and visibility of redundant groups in community or consumption spaces within urban centres, the discomforting social residue of austerity dogma. Synthetic cannabinoids and the misery they cause point to the eroding forces of markets and the systemic disintegration of safety nets and solidarity. Disseminating images of ‘spice zombies’ taken by revolted readers in their living and community environments, parts of the mainstream media invite an affirmation of difference between the deserving subjects of the civilised society and the abject welfare-dependent classes, as well as the indifference of the former towards the suggested self-inflicted condition of the latter.