This is No Laughing Matter

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Well they’ve only gone and done it again. They’ve given two fingers to the evidence and experts and ran the other direction fist bumping and high fiving each other. Hoping that carrying on with their persistent “war on drugs” approach will make people forget how much they’ve screwed everyone over recently.  

In case you missed it among all the SNP leadership sagas, and I wouldn’t blame you if you had, the UK government has decided that the possession of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) shall soon become a criminal offence. You may have seen the small silver bullet-like canisters scattered on the ground, at some point these would have been filled with laughing gas. Once again we have an archaic approach towards drug policy being applied. One that doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work, never has and it never will. We’ve done the prohibition approach over and over again, and yet illegal drugs have never left, people still die, while stigma and misinformation is still rife.

This is all part of the Government’s “Anti-social Behaviour Action Plan”, the lettering looking like something out of a superhero franchise. This “Action Plan” details how the government plans to crack down on the worst anti-social behaviour out there such as homelessness and begging. How can we live in such an unkind world that homelessness can be branded as anti-social behaviour. That rough sleeping can be framed as a choice rather than something that is forced upon people. From fly-tipping, to empty shops in local high-streets, this plan amounts to nothing more than an a political show pony that has been flouted many times in the past when popularity heads south. A bid to win back voters as the “tough on crime party”. A way to offload the mess we’re in by blaming youths with laughing gas, beggars and loud house parties, not to mention the king of them all, immigrants. In among this is the promise to ban nitrous oxide under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and by the end of the year make the drug a class C with prison sentences and unlimited fines for both supply and possession. Therefore this now becomes a Scotland issue as well.

It’s once again a blatant assault on evidence-based policy making. This isn’t the first time this UK government have utterly disregarded the evidence laid in front of them but is one of very few examples that the public in recent times has been exposed to just how utterly stupid the UK’s drug policy is. Not an ounce of sense or knowledge has been applied to it, there is no logical or rational reason, it is in every sense of the word stupid.

The Government has even ignored recommendations and evidence from their own advisory council the ACMD. Not to mention the countless charities, academics, activists and general experts on the subject. And although they’ve quoted the ACMD in their reasoning for the decision, this is done out of context and in a very sparse way. By stating that there are negative health effects of nitrous oxide wouldn’t exactly be a shock to anyone, as using any drug or substance too much will have an effect. Yet when the ACMD clearly explain that there is no need to make the substance illegal and in fact state it could cause significant burdens on those who legitimately use the substance. While also providing several recommendations from increasing information and advice for the public and healthcare staff, cracking down on illegal websites selling the drug, and restriction of cannister sizes which are too big. These were of course all ignored.

There is a balance to be found between evidence and policy, as at all times the government need to show that they are the ones in charge not scientists or people with perhaps more brain cells than them. Yet I think it’s a fair assumption that those who are making the decisions do so with at least a shred of evidence backing up their decisions.

Michael Gove did the rounds explaining why we actually needed this to stop our parks becoming “drug-taking arenas”. Mr Gove the Levelling Up secretary drew many calls of hypocrisy as he himself admitted to taking cocaine on more than one occasion, yet here he is over exaggerating the risk that laughing gas has on the UK. It seemed that one of his overwhelming arguments for introducing this drug to the Misuse of Drugs Act was the littering being done when the cannisters are left around. I would have to agree that this is without a doubt a problem, but there are much more reasonable ways to tackle this than giving someone a criminal record for possession of laughing gas. However, these cannisters do not pose the same risk as for example a used needle that been left lying around.

There is a risk to taking nitrous oxide, and as well as long term effects people have died from inhaling the gas. Although it has been hard to view the amount of nitrous oxide deaths in Scotland, there have been a total of 56 between the years 2001 and 2020 in England and Wales. This number represents the amount of people who died with the substance in their system, it doesn’t mean that other drugs weren’t also present at the time of their death.

How many people have to die before those in charge realise making drugs illegal doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. Once you take the cat out of the bag you can’t put it back in. Once drugs are out there and being used for recreational purposes there is no way of fully eliminating them. In the case of nitrous oxide which has caused the most harm in the younger demographic, even all be it a small percentage, the best way to go forward is to get info to them about the harms, dosages, how to take it more safely, what to look out for, etc. By making the drug illicit they are denied that knowledge.   

Although previously the supply of nitrous oxide for the use of its psychoactive effects had been illegal since 2016, this further crack down will push the supply deeper into criminal hands, most likely having further negative effects on the community and causing more health and social harms. Just like with any drug that is supplied by criminals the chances of that drug being stable and safe is very low indeed. Of all the things that need to be eradicated it is those groups of people, and this is not the way to do it.

What this also helps to do is place more burden on the criminal justice system, costing it more money as it has to process people for the possession of laughing gas. The Police are already stretched and do we have the resources to also make this a priority? Perhaps another thing to ask is weather we find it a valuable use of time, for the justice system to give out criminal records for possession of laughing gas, potentially ruining someone job prospects in the process. Is it really worth it?

It is yet another entry in the saga of denying drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one. Once again this UK government have put their party’s political ideology and it’s needs before the needs of those suffering drug addiction (just to clarify though Labour also agreed with the ban). They have doubled down on their thinking even though so much has moved on in recent years, and the calls to stop criminalising drugs can be heard the world over. Yet here we are in 2023 and still it carries on.

They went with the same approach that has been standard in the UK for over 50 years. Please can we see some change. Please can we see some acknowledgment of evidence in drugs policy and please for the love of all that is sacred in this world can we stop criminalising drugs.

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