Get a grip, Priti Patel – laughing gas isn’t a major threat to individuals or society

Experts agree that nitrous oxide is one of the least harmful drugs and is certainly not as harmful as tobacco and alcohol

Ian Hamilton
Monday 18 October 2021 11:53
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<p>The ACMD recommended against making nitrous oxide possession illegal in 2015</p>

The ACMD recommended against making nitrous oxide possession illegal in 2015

As home secretary, Priti Patel says that she intends to take a tough approach to illegal drug use. She’s not the first home secretary to do this and like her predecessors, this is meant to appeal to voters. A new poll by YouGov challenges this assumption, with 60 per cent of those surveyed saying they believe that the current policy of criminalising those using drugs is largely ineffective in preventing use.

This poll provides other insights about the way people view individual substances and how harmful they perceive them to be. Recently, Priti Patel said she would take “tough action” on those using nitrous oxide or laughing gas by ordering a review into the drug and making clear that banning its use was an option. The bad news for the home secretary is that most people don’t share her concern about laughing gas, as only one in three of those polled viewed laughing gas as very harmful to individuals that use it and more broadly to society.

Interestingly, what does concern many people is substances that are not currently banned, namely alcohol and tobacco. Over half (53 per cent) of those surveyed believed tobacco was very harmful and 47 per cent thought alcohol was harmful to society. Unlike the home secretary, this poll chimes with the views of experts and researchers about the relative harms of drugs both to the individual and society.

Experts agree that nitrous oxide is one of the least harmful drugs and is certainly not as harmful as tobacco and alcohol.

Some people will notice and perhaps feel irritated by the drug litter associated with nitrous oxide. Many city streets are littered with discarded nitrous oxide canisters, often referred to as balloons. But we already have regulations that deal with litter without resorting to banning the causes of it. Banning the consumption of Snickers or other chocolates may well cut down the number of discarded sweet wrappers, but it would be an insane way of achieving this, as it will be with laughing gas.

It seems that the home secretary’s motivation in picking on those using laughing gas is based on her belief of how this will appeal to the Conservatives’ core voters, as there is no other reason for spending so much effort on this. The laughing gas plan also signals just how ludicrous the government’s current drug policy is.

This is a policy with its roots in 1970s legislation, constantly tinkered with by a succession of Labour and Conservative home secretaries, who seem to find it utterly seductive. Priti Patel’s announcement about cracking down on nitrous oxide is just the latest example of many politicians wanting to portray how tough they can be on drugs. Toughness is needed but not on those using drugs; rather it is politicians that need to be tough by having the courage to commit to adopting an evidence-based approach to policy.

This will only be achieved by taking a fresh look at the whole policy, rather than its component parts. In the same way that interest rates are independently reviewed to ensure there is no political interference, there is a desperate need for independent responsibility for drug policy. Politicians of all colours have consistently demonstrated their eagerness to meddle with policy which has had dire consequences for those they are charged with protecting.

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Just as a failing rail network can be relieved of its responsibility to provide a service, the time has come to relieve politicians of their responsibility, or lack of it, for policy on this issue. Drugs should never have been or ever be a political issue. The consequences are too severe, as record numbers continue to die as a result of using drugs.

We have a rich source of expertise on drug issues in this country that we could call on to review current policy and then construct a new evidence-based policy. But it shouldn’t stop there. This group would be responsible for evaluating the change and making any necessary changes – not on a whim, but using facts and science.

In the meantime, our politicians continue to find ever more bizarre ways of engaging with drug policy, by employing harmful, nonsense strategies.

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York

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