Why would you want to outlaw something that facilitates laughing? This is a question that might be posited to the Home Office, as its new Psychoactive Substances Bill begins to be felt. On Saturday night, four large bags of laughing gas canisters, balloons and dispensers were seized by police in Shoreditch, East London. The new law would mean that anyone caught in possession of this kind of stuff – i.e. anyone selling balloons – could face up to seven years in prison.
As some have already pointed out, the Psychoactive Substances Bill seems to go beyond just clamping down on drugs, effectively seeking to criminalise pleasure itself.
However, there's more to it than just that: entrepreneurial instincts are being stunted here, too. Think of the late-night NOS salesmen, the enterprising shufflers wading their way through high streets, filling balloons with a charge of gas less harmful than a pint of beer and punting them to guys in Hype T-shirts. What will become of them?
The Conservatives bang on about building an economy for "people who work hard". Is spending all weekend, every weekend traipsing through crowds of pissed-up idiots to sell nitrous not an example of exactly that? The NOS salesman's willingness to go out and earn his keep – a quality assumed to be non-existent in today's young by stupid classists – has been thwarted by a Conservative government criminalising something that needn't have been criminalised in the first place.
Few widely taken drugs are more innocuous than laughing gas, bar maybe khat, a mild stimulant that the government banned a couple of years ago. Despite the UK's right-wing media getting itself in a tizzy over the stuff, there's still no real evidence to suggest NOS is as harmful as everyone likes to make out. DrugScience (formerly known as the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs) calls laughing gas "one of the least risky drugs", a view shared by Alistair Bohm of Addaction, one of the UK's largest alcohol and substance abuse charities. "We can't credibly deny that compared to other drugs it is relatively low risk," he said. "The risks from taking it from balloons are quite low. When there have been stories about deaths, they tend to be from people who are using canisters and masks, then you get into the dangers of asphyxiation." Most credible sources agree that it's little more than a non-addictive, 20-second head rush that teleports you through a thumping maze of looping sound and geometric shapes.
There's also something vaguely romantic about the nitrous midnight market – a kind of Smithfields charm, an echo of the old London currently being whitewashed by local councils and the redevelopment they've been approving in spades. Its legality meant that instead of someone walking past at dawn, whispering "coke, MD, lemon haze" in your ear like druggy ghosts, people could be a little more boisterous.
The sound of deals being made in between the whoosh of a balloon being filled with good times – the whole thing was at least a bit more communal than meeting some faceless guy down an alley, or getting into someone's car with the sweat of trepidation on your brow. It was drug dealing as it should be: open, safe and a bit silly, with everyone falling about and enjoying themselves. Why bother pushing that underground? Why take away an avenue for those with less cash to earn more on the side? Why put the threat of police confrontation on yet another part of daily life?
Why is no one allowed to have anything? Why stop these guys selling a couple of balloons on the street of a Friday night? Imagine the same situation in somewhere like Barcelona. How European and fun it would seem – jovial men and women breathing in silly air on a balmy evening with a cheeky Estrella chaser.
But this is England, where everything is a crime, everything is dark and drab and rainy and cold and shit. It sometimes feels like there's a war going on in London against those who wanna have fun without a million quid in their back pocket. Let's not assume that all NOS sellers are destitute, on the breadline, making ends meet by selling joy-fug to Essex boys on Brick Lane. Because they're not. However, what they do tend to be are young (mostly) men who are often trying to get some reparations from the very people forcing them out of their areas via gentrification.
The ban is a populist policy borne of a moral panic, a knee-jerk reaction to appease the readers of the newspapers making a fuss about "hippy crack". With benefits for under-21s being cut, and the abolition of EMA, the young are being pushed further and further into a corner – and the lashing out that'll inevitably provoke from them will also, of course, be all their own fault.
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