When the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971, less than 10,000 people in the UK used heroin. Now over 250,000 take it. Under half a million used cannabis. Now over 2.5 million take it. Something has gone wrong. Yet instead of reflecting and rethinking, here we are in 2021 with the government launching a new crackdown on recreational drug users.  

The latest concern is nitrous oxide. The substance – widely used in catering, medicine and motoring – can also be used recreationally to induce a brief sense of euphoria. Now it may be criminalised as the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has ordered experts to review its effects. She said she was ready to “take tough action” on the widespread use of “laughing gas”, which is mostly taken by inhaling it through balloons filled from small metal cylinders. They are increasingly seen littering streets, nightclubs and festivals.

We’ve been here before. In 2016 hysteria over the use of nitrous oxide motivated the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act which banned so-called “legal highs” and made it an offence to use or sell nitrous oxide for recreational purposes. Yet outlawing the sale of nitrous oxide has done nothing to curb its use and the 2016 Act has been largely ineffectual in reducing drug use overall.

The Act was just the latest means of the government deciding what substances are acceptable and which are not. For example, the Psychoactive Substances Act did not criminalise “poppers” because the government of the time didn’t want to get into a debate with the gay community. They were arbitrarily deemed to be “not psychoactive”, and the argument made by the National Aids Trust that banning poppers would drive the market underground and pose a health risk to the gay community was accepted.

Fancy that, driving the drug market underground can pose a health risk to users. Who’d have thunk it? Of course, the logical next step was not taken and here we are banging our head against the same old wall. The Psychoactive Substances Act did not curb the use of nitrous oxide and the only option the blinkered government will consider is to introduce yet more stringent legislation.

The Royal Society for Public Health immediately opposed Patel’s move, warning it was not clear that criminalising possession had any effect on a drug’s level of availability or use.

Burcu Borysik, head of policy at the charity, said: “The government’s insistence on criminalisation and incarceration for minor drug offences worsens problems linked to illicit drug use, including social inequality and violence.

“The heavy-handed enforcement approach to drugs does nothing but spread fear among young people, prevents them from seeking the support they need, and unnecessarily drags them into the criminal justice system.”

The Home Office argument is that nitrous oxide “can cause serious long-term effects such as vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia. It is also commonly used at antisocial gatherings and leads to widespread littering in public places, bringing misery to communities.”

Sorry to be a bore, using predictable arguments. But doesn’t that sound like the effects and consequences of a drug abundantly available on tap in every village, town and city in the country? A drug advertised across the media, widely enjoyed and deeply embedded in our culture?

Deaths from alcohol-specific causes rose to 7,423 in England and Wales in 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics, and in 2018-19 more than one in 10 incidents of antisocial behaviour were attributed to alcohol. I’m not suggesting we ban alcohol and nor is the government, but it’s time we got a sense of perspective amongst the hysterics and hypocrisy. This seems less about health concerns and more about a sense of moral inconsistency.

It is of course right that anti-social behaviour that results from its use should be clamped down on under existing laws. It is said to lead to widespread littering, noise nuisance and vandalism and this is why local authorities such as Tower Hamlets Council have threatened £100 fines and a Public Space Protection Order.  

There are certainly valid health concerns about nitrous oxide misuse too. Dr Chris Moulton, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said “the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide gas can include headaches, nausea, dizziness, unconsciousness, collapse and consequent injury.” If administered incorrectly, it can lead to severe internal burns. Like any drug, there are health risks and dangers that users need to be aware of.

Yet banning it outright is just the latest round in an endless game of whack-a-mole that the government insists on playing, eternally chasing its losses. It will become less widely available, but people will move on to other widely available drugs or purchase it on the black market. Ultimately, drugs will still be rife and many non-violent users of nitrous oxide will have criminal records.

The drugs charity Release warned a ban would burden tens of thousands of young people with criminal records “which will affect their employment and educational opportunities, something that seriously outweighs the harms of nitrous oxide”.

A harm reduction approach is the only realistic way of reducing the risk. Educate young people on the health risks of nitrous oxide, but also educate them on how it can be used safely, to avoid the risks of asphyxiation, B12 depletion, injury and fainting.

The way the government goes about drug policy is utterly futile and pointless. It’s part of the pretence that the war on drugs can be won and the government is able to prevent people using drugs recreationally. It’s harmful, counterproductive theatre. Instead of focussing on a drug that does relatively little harm, certainly far less than alcohol, money should be invested in harm reduction across the board, especially for people dying from using opiates.

Instead of building on the ineffectual Psychoactive Substances Act, it’s time to reflect on the harmful and ineffective way we approach drug legislation in this country as a whole. Sadly, we seem to be stuck in an endless, pointless loop.