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2016 Was the Year the Tabloids Won the War on Drugs

A new bill banning any and all "psychoactive substances" was the direct result of a moral panic started by the red tops.
Some of the tabloid headline about "hippy crack".

We live in a "post-truth" world now, don't we? You know it, Donald Trump knows it, even the lexicographers charged with keeping dictionaries hip know it. But while we might know it, many of us still don't fully understand it. How can such a large chunk of the voting population just not give a fuck about the facts?

One lucky set of people who've at least had a little more time to comprehend this concept are those who follow British law. Drug legislators were "post-truth" before it was cool, very much leading the way when it came to ignoring experts and just reacting to whatever the red tops were making a fuss about. And this year was a big win for the tabloids: when the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force on the 26th of May, making it illegal to sell hitherto "legal highs" or nitrous oxide, it was a direct result of the moral panic they'd started themselves.


Nitrous oxide – which you probably call "NOS" or laughing gas, or just "balloons" – is an interesting case for investigators of "post-truthiness". Papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail delighted in vilifying the drug they termed "hippy crack", one of those names – like "meow meow" and "roflcopter" – that only ever seemed to appear in print if it was written by someone who had no idea what they were on about.

As a VICE investigation found, these apparently anti-drug stories tended to only drive up interest in whatever high was mentioned. In one such story, which made The Sun's front page in June of 2015, England footballer Raheem Sterling was pictured apparently inhaling a balloon beside the splash headline: "50m? You're having a laughing gas," a very clever reference to the amount Manchester City were about to pay to buy him from Liverpool – a transfer the NOS revelations did nothing to stop.

The hysteria peaked the following month. Eighteen-year-old Ally Calvert, from Bexley in south-east London, died after attending a party. In line with initial police statements, The Sun reported: "Teen dies after 'taking hippy crack' at party," and The Daily Mail followed with: "Pictured: The teenage electrician, 18, who suffered a cardiac arrest and died in the street after inhaling hippy crack."

Illustration: Sam Taylor

Except this wasn't true. By September, the police had been forced to apologise when it became clear that Calvert had died from an unrelated heart condition, and that any link to consumption of alcohol or nitrous oxide was, in the police's words, "completely false". Yet both The Sun and the Mail stories, and their headlines, remain online. The Mail's story has added a short correction explaining the police's mistake, but you'll have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the story – which still blames nitrous oxide – before you can read it.


Even the tabloid-fuelled belief that using nitrous was a new and dangerous pastime is an ahistorical lie. People have been inhaling it for fun since 1799, when it was a hit with the British upper classes. Many of the romantic poets were fans, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge even recorded his experiences with laughing gas, writing that it caused him to remain "for a few seconds motionless, in great ecstasy". As an added bonus, he didn't even have to put up with people calling it "hippy crack".

Although the Psychoactive Substances Act has now outlawed the selling of nitrous oxide for direct inhalation, its sale remains very much legal if the buyer intends to use it to make whipped cream. The confused state of this law was beautifully illustrated just last month by Devon and Cornwall police, which, having seized a box of nitrous canisters, proceeded to list it for sale on its eBay page for a tenner (with free shipping). The force later issued a statement, saying: "We would like to make clear that the sale of NOS chargers is not prohibited in the UK, and that such items are widely and legally available both online and in retail outlets. On reflection, we regret placing these items for sale."

Since the ban, The Sun has continued to run "hippy crack" scare stories. Two recent articles involved serious accidents that occurred while drivers allegedly inhaled nitrous before or while behind the wheel. Unquestionably stupid, although surely only drug-related in the same sense that you could say smoking is bad for your health if you do it while filling your car with petrol.


The ban on experimental "legal highs" appears to have been relatively more successful. Many of the mystery powders available before have been removed from the high street and, as we recently discovered, any "legal highs" still being sold openly online are invariably caffeine-based.

WATCH: 'The Hard Lives of Britain's Synthetic Cannabis Addicts'

However, use of "synthetic cannabis" Spice – a substance banned under the act – has increased, notably among Britain's prisoners. The drug is worth ten times its price inside, so former inmates are plugging their arses with the drug and deliberately reoffending as a way to smuggle it in. And when it reaches cells, it causes havoc, with users fitting, vomiting and blacking out. The amount of ambulances responding to prison Spice casualties has shot up, to the point that Nick Hardwick, HM chief inspector of prisons, recently said of HMP Wealstun in Yorkshire: "They were having so many health emergencies caused by the use of [Spice] that basically all of the available ambulances in the community on one occasion were at the prison."

This problem is stark, and experts say the government's prison reform plans aren't going to make the slightest bit of difference. What's more difficult to assess, though, is how much impact the blanket implementation of the ban, where all new drugs are now considered illegal until proved otherwise, has had on people working to create new medicine. The government's former drug advisor Professor David Nutt warned when the ban was first suggested that the new law would make it harder for those working in the medical field to develop and test new drugs.


Nutt is one of those who has been speaking out about "post-truth" drug policies since well before "post-truth" went mainstream. When he was sacked as a government advisor in 2009 it was because he was calling for exactly the sort of legislation based on evidence, science and risk that seems such a distant dream now. Last year, I asked him why he thought the government was bowing to the tabloid demand to ban nitrous oxide, and he put it succinctly: "I think this is just about young people enjoying themselves, and they hate that because they're miserable sods."

Drug legislation in the UK has never been about truth or scientific evidence. It's always been a culture war, and just as has happened with immigration and EU integration, it's a culture war in which the tabloids have declared victory. Britain now finds itself way behind the curve when it comes to drug liberalisation. In America, weed has now been legalised for recreational use in eight states and is legal for medical purposes in a further 20. Ireland, too, is mooting legalisation for medical use. Yet in Britain, any relaxing of our own drug laws couldn't be further from Theresa May's mind.

2016 wasn't all bad for rationality. A last minute change to the Psychoactive Substances Act meant that poppers were made exempt from the new law, a decision that was at least in part due to a former Conservative justice minister, Crispin Blunt, telling the Commons he'd used poppers, and calling the idea of a ban "fantastically stupid".

It's also worth noting that the new law specifically outlawed the sale of new psychoactive substances, but not possession, a distinction that many drug campaigners had called for. Initiatives such as drug testing at festivals were examples of harm reduction winning out over moral panic, but they were exceptions to the general rule. In the brave new post-truth world, drug science was an early casualty.