‘You can make research heard amid the noise of policy.’

Work with a London think tank to host debate. Develop local models with positive solutions and brief policy makers clearly, says Dr Rob Ralphs, MMU’s expert on the Spice crisis.

“I help integrate policy makers from the criminal justice, housing and the care systems to understand how policies impact each other and contribute to the Spice problem.”

When I watch people stumbling about – catatonic on Spice – in Manchester and other city centres, I see how public policies, designed to control problematic citizens, are backfiring spectacularly. The cure has often proved more dangerous than the original ailments.

Bans on drug and alcohol use in supported accommodation and bail hostels were meant to reduce harms and create safer, more peaceful environments. But they have driven residents into city centres to take their drugs. Meanwhile, public order legislation to stop city centre drinking has led those same people to use Spice instead. It’s easy to take unobserved.

Meanwhile, the clampdown on drug use in prisons through mandatory drugs testing – meant to reduce drug use – is having unexpected effects. Prisoners know that, whereas cannabis use remains detectable for 30 days, Spice is not flagged up by mandatory drug tests. So there is a shift among prisoners to taking Spice, which, as in city centres, has led to increases in overdose and hospitalisations.

There have also been increases in violence, self-harm and deaths related to Spice use in our prisons. These serious incidents tie up already stretched prison staff, so inmates are confined to their cells for even longer. This raises tensions and leads to further drug use. Many of these addicted prisoners will, months later, be on the streets and in hostels. They may be catatonic again, taking Spice in city centres and putting strain on our emergency services.

How can research influence policy makers?

So I had an important question: “How can I and colleagues help government to rethink public order and drug policies in these areas that are producing unintended and damaging consequences – policies for homelessness, prisons and probation as well as among young people in care, where Spice is also a problem? How can research help reduce the tragic consequences of these policies?”

I’ve been fortunate in gaining a Chancellor’s Fellowship to do precisely that – to build the influence of research to improve policy. Here’s just one metric to demonstrate how well the scheme, developed by Manchester Metropolitan University, is working to raise my profile: before the fellowship, my research had a respectable reach of 15 million people in 2016. Today, that figure has more than quadrupled, to over 70 million in the past year.

That’s partly thanks to extensive media coverage in print, online and on air. It’s also been because of policy lobbying – that “reach” includes people who make a difference. For example, we have briefed the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who opened our ‘Responding to Spice’ conference.

Our research findings are drawn upon in Government investigations aimed at rethinking current drugs strategy. The Home Office invited us to submit evidence to an All Party Parliamentary Review of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. I’m now involved in work to improve the local prisons and national responses around drug use and drug markets, including providing evidence to the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) working group.

Our ‘Manchester model’ to tackle this emerging drug trend was recently held up as a model of good practice by a HM Inspectorate of Probation review of the impact of Spice and other new psychoactive substances on the national probation service. There are also invitations to share learning abroad – in Poland – and closer to home, in Wales, Doncaster and Sheffield.

From this process of extending the influence of research, here are five standout pieces of learning.

Work with a pressure group

First, if your research has bearing on public policy, then it’s helpful to work with a think tank that’s focussed in your field. I spent my Chancellor’s Fellowship with Volteface, a think tank which explores alternatives to current public policies relating to drugs. Together, we developed the “High Stakes: Prison Drugs Symposium” in May 2017 that drew together a broad range of interested groups including ex-prisoners, academics, policy-makers, campaigners, prison staff and drug treatment workers. This led to a second Volteface event in Manchester, opened by Andy Burnham, in July 2017, entitled “Responding to Spice: Developing an integrated response”.

Understand the media

Working with Volteface gave me access to national policy makers. It is easier for a London-based organisation to attract leading ministers and MPs to events: the first symposium was held at London’s Barbican centre, close to Westminster. They are media savvy: one director has been a speech writer for David Cameron and has worked for Channel 4 News while another is an IT whizz. Through this experience and working closely with my institute’s press office, I’ve learned how to work better with the media and find the reporters and programmes that will cover my research accurately and sensitively and how to engage with social media platforms.

Have a positive agenda

Second, develop positive ideas for action. In the past, my research has tended to criticise policy and local authorities. Now, I am more interested in offering them solutions and, as a consequence, policy makers are more receptive.

Third, use your academic prestige and trust to bring together diverse interests. Public policy, particularly related to ‘wicked problems’ is often characterised by siloed, fragmented interventions that need to be drawn together. So, for my part, I have aimed to help integrate policy makers from the criminal justice, housing and the care systems to understand how individual policies impact each other and contribute to the Spice drugs problem that has unfolded in various groups.

Brief leaders well

Fourth, create good briefings. Policy makers need policy briefings that are short and reliable with clear, take-home messages and actions. This background briefing work with, for example, the Mayor’s office in Greater Manchester, has been as important as the high profile public events in securing action and change.

Create local models of change

Fifth, create focus on making change at a local level, as a stepping stone to shifts in national policy. It’s important to strive for change at a national level, but it can be difficult, especially if you are not based in London. A Cabinet reshuffle can send you back to the drawing board. Local policy makers are more accessible and their turnover is slower. Nationally, prison reform is difficult because it is so charged politically. At a local level, we have focussed on developing a model of good practice that can then be shared with other localities and then brought to national attention.

Dr Rob Ralphs is a Reader in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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