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How Will the New Ban on Laughing Gas, Poppers and Legal Highs Affect This Summer's Festivals?

The government have crossed off a bunch of substances, some of which seem more fun than harmful. So we spoke to a professor about it.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
1.6.15

I’ve never personally indulged in more than an elementary huff on a nitrous balloon. The swift, sharp headrush that comes from bastardising a child’s birthday inventory feels like one of life’s most cheap and unnecessary time wasters, like Sea Monkeys or the Grow Your Own Alien kits, but for premature adults that haven’t yet discovered the thrill of real drugs or beating the Fear of Missing Out. Still, I’m well aware smatterings of residents on our fair isle enjoy partaking in the odd balloon – it’s the second most popular drug after “the weed” - which is why, when the government announced last week that they would be banning “the hippy crack”, it wasn’t surprising a lot of people were upset. Deflated and limp like the balloons they would no longer be able to discard round the back of a local Nandos, it was like parliament had reached further into the back pocket of the tax payer, taking his money and right to respire freely. The new law, which will be published on Friday, states it will be illegal to produce, distribute, sell or supply “new psychoactive substances” in Britain, whether over the internet or through a high street ‘head shop’. This includes laughing gas, poppers, and over 500 legal highs, varying from pointless to potentially dangerous. Lots of other drugs are illegal though, and people continue to take them, especially at festivals. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concedes that, in the past few years, the amount of casualties from laughing gas are low – five in 2010, and one in 2011, “due to asphyxiation resulting from hypoxia” or “the use of nitrous oxide in an enclosed space” – which seems a lot less than, say, alcohol, which claims around 40,000 lives each year. In order to gain some insight on the new law and what to do if, by chance, you find yourself laying on the floor of a festival, breathing in and out of a balloon filled with illegal gas while imagining the world rapidly moving in reverse to the sound of imaginary sirens, I spoke to Professor Harry Sumnall, Professor in Substance Use, Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University. Noisey: Yo Harry. A bunch of drugs are now illegal. What was the law beforehand?
Harry: Firstly, there’s the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) which is the law most people are familiar with (the A,B,C classification system). Individual drugs, or groups of drugs with similar chemical structures, are placed in the MDA based upon assessment of likely harms to users and society at large. However, this relies on a lengthy review process and evidence gathering, which the government believed wasn’t responsive enough to the rise of new psychoactive substances, so in 2011 they introduced Temporary Class Drug Orders (TCDOs). A drug can be subject to a TCDO after rapid review (typically 28 days, rather than several months) and although possession isn’t a crime, penalties for manufacture, supply, or intent to supply are equivalent to Class B drugs. With respect to nitrous oxide (laughing gas), sale to under 18s was already illegal through the Intoxicating Substances Act, and sale to over 18s was prohibited under the Medicines Act for the purposed of inhalation. However, it wasn’t an offence to buy small cannisters (the whippets familiar to many), or to dispense it into containers such as balloons and sell those. There's a strong public opinion that laughing gas is not harmful. How true is that statement?
The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which is a statutory body set up to make recommendations on drug laws and drug issues reviewed the evidence on nitrous oxide earlier this year. It concluded that potential harms associated with use did not warrant formal control under the MDA, i.e. it shouldn’t be made illegal. The number of deaths associated with use are low, about 12 since 1993 - mostly due to suffocation such as users putting bags of nitrous over their heads; and short term harms are mostly headaches and the potential for falling over. Long term harms are rare, there is some evidence for anaemia and Vitamin B deficiency in really heavy users (or in professionals with easy access such as dentists), but this can be reversed with vitamin supplements. Whilst no drug related behaviour is without risk, the evidence is clear that nitrous is much less harmful than most other drugs encountered at parties and festivals, and certainly safer than alcohol. Lots of teenagers use legal highs at festivals, specifically laughing gas. Do you reckon that will change with the new law? Will we still see young adults huffing in droves?
The new law, if it’s passed as planned, will significantly affect availability and use of nitrous. There’s still a legitimate market for it, which will have to be protected - e.g. anaesthetists, dentists, coffee chains, industry - and so there will be some diversion. But I expect that the proportion of people using nitrous - it’s currently the country's second most popular recreational drug, excluding tobacco and alcohol - will fall dramatically. Its also worth bearing in mind that many festivals have already introduced their own bans on nitrous and other NPS, primarily because of problems with canister and whippet litter, Glastonbury being the most recent high profile example. What should teenagers do to ensure they're safe?
No drug is without risk, but the main risks associated with nitrous are around its route of administration. Inhaling a cold, high pressure gas direct from a canister is particularly risky; always avoid this. Similarly, remember that you also need oxygen when inhaling nitrous. This sounds like an obvious thing to say, but you still need to breathe normally, so don’t inhale through a medical mask, fill the room with gas, or fill a bag and put it over your head. Take breaks between inhalations, and remember that it’ll make you go dizzy, so it’s best to inhale whilst lying or sitting down. If you’re not inhaling from pre-filled balloons always check that the canister or whippet is intact. If it’s cracked then don’t use it, and avoid naked flames. Finally, look out for your friends, and if you or them have heart or blood pressure problems then the safest option is not to use. What's your personal opinion on the new legislation? It feels like the government want to save themselves embarrassment from young adults purchasing legal highs from high street shops, and then getting sick.
Fundamentally, I think the proposed new legislation is a simplistic response to a complex problem, and will not reduce users’ drive for intoxication and new experiences. Simply limiting the availability of products will not limit people’s desire to use drugs, and my personal opinion is that we should be considering safer ways of allowing people to get high (or if this is even possible), an option which this proposed new law will remove. Allowing criminal networks to control the production and supply of drugs is not a good way of reducing harms associated with use. If we think about mephedrone, this was banned in 2010 and whilst use in the general population has fallen substantially (which can be seen as a policy success), we now have reports of it being injected and an increasing number of people presenting to treatment services with problems associated with use. In Dublin there has recently been cases of HIV transmission associated with mephedrone injection.

Annoncering

In New Zealand they have laws which allow for the licensing of lower risk NPS products, whilst removing more harmful products from the market. This approach recognises that NPS are not all the same and differ in their harm profiles. There are also strict restrictions on marketing and advertising, so by manipulating the market you steer consumers towards those drugs for which you have evidence that they might be less harmful, and that might also compete with harmful illegal and legal drugs such as methamphetamine, alcohol and tobacco. Although domestic politics have held up the implementation of the New Zealand law I think its a sensible and pragmatic approach, and well worth exploring here. A similar model was proposed as one of the options in the government’s Expert Panel review on NPS in 2014, so I’m disappointed that this hasn’t been given more serious consideration.

Thanks Harry! So, there you have it. It’s increasingly been a part of the narcotic narrative that changing a drug’s status to make it illegal doesn’t decrease harm, but puts power back into the hands of criminals, and out of regulative control, usually resulting in more harm than good. In the case of balloons, it’s important that festivals like Glastonbury have put reduction measures in place to help prevent harmful, hard to dispose trash being left behind. But what about our fun? Shouldn’t it be our choice, the residents of the United Kingdom, to partake in the odd, relatively unharmful balloon, in the same way we can choose to munch on a heart-threatening steak, buy a box of cut-price cigarettes at the airport, or drown our sorrows in the half-price wine aisle in Iceland? It seems more than ever, the government is attempting to stop the residents of this country from having fun, or doing anything that may deviate from a life of drab mediocrity.

You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil