Bursting the balloon on the new Tory war on drugs

It would be funny if it wasn't so stupid - why laughing gas shouldn't be banned

It’s no laughing matter. When this government referred nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas or NOS, to its so called ‘Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ (ACMD) one assumed it was because they wanted to be advised. The reality is anything but.

Last week possession of NOS became a criminal offence. As a class C drug, possession can now carry a sentence of up to two years in prison. Those done for supply could face up to 14 years in prison.

I will come onto the folly of imprisonment in a bit. But for now, let’s stick with the decision to stick it to the experts. For such a drastic move one would assume the evidence was clear. Far from it.

Ask an expert

The AMCD – you know, the experts - reported on the associated risks of NOS use and were very clear, saying:

“Based on this harms assessment, nitrous oxide should not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”. Because they argued, that the “current evidence suggests that the health and social harms are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”.

And so, after considering this expert advice closely, they of course wasted no time and … did the exact opposite.

To be abundantly clear, this was a political decision devoid of expert backing. First it was the Home Secretary in the form of Patel and then Suella Braverman who supported the criminalisation of laughing gas. But the nail in the coffin of common sense came when the Prime Minister himself backed the move.

In retrospect when Michael Gove quipped in 2016 around Brexit that “people in this country have had enough of experts” it might be fair to assume that by “people” he meant, “The Conservative Party”. Never have we been led by people less equipped to listen to expert advice. Those in power have suckled on their own mind-altering cocktail of extreme arrogance and entitlement combined with a nauseating populism. Like a night out that’s gone off the rails, the consequences are disastrous.

Drawing by Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives

Eton mess

As easy it is to watch this like a melodrama play (and much how Laura Kussenberg’s “State of Chaos” presented it – detached from consequence) it’s essential we focus now on the harms this policy will do and think how best we can mitigate against them.

Firstly, this affects a lot of people. In England and Wales, nitrous oxide is the third most used drug after cannabis and cocaine. And this is heavily weighted towards young people. In the years leading up to COVID (where the numbers dropped for obvious reasons) about 8% of 16-24 year olds used laughing gas.

But, as with so much that relies on the criminal justice system, we know that marginalised and disadvantaged groups will be impacted the most. Trust me when I say we’re not going to see the future Prime Minister’s dormitories in Eton raided anytime soon.

Lock em up

One of the reasons the conspiracy ridden QAnon demand of “lock her up” garnered support was because of an unspoken assumption – that those in power don’t get locked up for serious crimes while others do for minor crimes. As if to cement this idea our political elite sometimes pass laws that threaten prison sentences for relatively innocuous crimes like, say, possession of laughing gas.

The ONS reports that the prison population of England & Wales quadrupled in size between 1900 and 2018, with around half of this increase taking place since 1990. 61% of our prison establishments are now deemed to be overcrowded.

But dig down deeper and you see trends emerge and who we are locking up – according to the radical hothouse, the House of Commons’ briefing 27% for example identified as an ethnic minority. And research shows a disproportionate number have low levels of literacy (62%] which is four times higher than in the general population. Around 47% of people entering prison have no prior qualifications. I repeat – raids on Eton are not what we are going to see on the back of this legislation.

Our prisons are overcrowded and ill-equipped. While prison sentences generally are known to have a long-term and negative impact on employability, they also can have negative impacts by disrupting family relationships and even putting accommodation at risk.

Snorting in derision

It seems mind blowing that people can’t spot the issue here with politicians on record talking about their own drug use sat in a building that had cocaine residue in 11 out of the 12 toilets tested saying that young and marginalised people should face imprisonment for the possession of a drug that has lower reported harms that many legal drugs such as alcohol.

Regardless, we’re left with a steaming pile of government policy that barely makes sense. For one individual convicted of possession it will cost us an approximate £48,000 a year of taxpayers’ money. A high cost, but nothing compared to the havoc it will wreak onto the lives of those convicted. The war on drugs teaches us that the damage of imprisonment will reverberate through their lives and erode their employability, expose them to serious criminals, potentially risk them losing their home, and put relationships at risk. Oh, and like a duff unregulated drug, it will do nothing to impact the associated harms of drug misuse.

Further reading from people who actually know what the fuck they are talking about: