The winner of the 2024 Godfrey and Sue Hall Postgraduate Research Student Prize is Sam Craft, PhD student in the Department of Psychology.

Sam’s PhD is titled ‘Clinical and epidemiological features of synthetic cannabinoids and their detection in drug matrices and biological specimens’. Synthetic cannabinoids (SCs) are potent drugs which act on the same area of the brain as cannabis. In the UK they are used almost exclusively by marginalised populations, particularly those experiencing homelessness and those in prison. A major problem affecting the management of adverse effects in clinical settings is that these drugs cannot be detected using standard screening methods. This can prevent diagnosis and treatment of symptoms, and the monitoring of harms experienced at the population level. Also, longer term harms, including dependence and withdrawal, are poorly understood. Using interdisciplinary methods and collaborating with academic and non-academic partners, Sam’s PhD has sought to address these challenges to help improve outcomes among people who use these drugs.

Using secondary data, Sam conducted the largest study of synthetic cannabinoid withdrawal to date which has helped to characterise the profile of symptoms experienced among people who attempt to quit as well as highlighting that SC withdrawal is rated to be significantly more severe compared to cannabis. Also using secondary data, Sam conducted the first ever study to combine clinical and toxicological data to evaluate trends in the number of people presenting to hospitals across the UK with adverse effects from SC use. This study showed that hospital presentations have not declined despite changes to UK drug policy with aimed to reduce SC use.

Sam also conducted and designed two studies involving primary data collection among hard-to-reach populations. The first study, in a prison setting, identified the novel ways in which SCs are being used in this setting, the characteristics and motivations of individuals that may be more likely to use these drugs and examined prisoners’ receptiveness to treatment interventions. The second pilot study involved working with local community partners to collect samples from largely homeless drug users to test the feasibility of using a novel detection method developed at the University of Bath to detect SCs in samples of saliva. The study showed that this method could detect SCs with an accuracy of 87.5%, thereby providing support for a larger study of this kind. Sam’s final study involved analysing samples of disposable vapes which were volunteered by an individual after they experienced a range of unexpected effects. Although sold as containing cannabis, analysis revealed the presence of SCs and this study is the first to report the detection and quantification of SCs in disposable vaping products.

After receiving the award, Sam said “I feel very honoured to have won this award. I’m very grateful to the committee, Godfrey and Sue Hall, and everyone who has contributed to this research, particularly all the participants.”

The Godfrey and Sue Hall Postgraduate Research Student Prize is awarded on behalf of Senate by the Godfrey and Sue Hall Postgraduate Research Student Prize Committee to a postgraduate research student based on a high standard of achievement. Sponsors of the award, Godfrey and Sue Hall, said “We would like to congratulate Sam on his excellent piece of research. We were impressed with the amount of time and effort that has gone into this study and the social implications that have been addressed. This particular student has achieved a great deal through hard work and determination on a topic that is currently poorly understood. We are sure that it will make a valuable contribution to a challenging issue which deals with marginalized individuals in society.”