This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Why would you want to outlaw something that facilitates laughing? This is a question that ought to be posited to the UK's 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 criminalize 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 hammered idiots to sell nitrous not a perfect example of exactly that? The NOS salesman's willingness to go out and earn his keep—a quality assumed to be nonexistent in today's young by stupid classists—has been thwarted by a Conservative government criminalizing something that needn't have been criminalized in the first place.
There are few drugs less innocuous than laughing gas, bar maybe khat, an astonishingly mild stimulant that the government banned a couple of years ago for no good reason. 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."
It's not addictive, and it's not going to kill you, unless you do something really, really, extra stupid, like inhale a bunch of canisters straight from the dispenser without breathing in any oxygen, or put a plastic bag over your head while you do a balloon. It's not even a high that lasts long enough for you to get yourself into any dangerous situations; it's a 20-second head rush that teleports you through a thumping maze of looping sound and geometric shapes.
There's also something almost 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 ear-splitting 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 aren't these guys allowed to just sell a couple of balloons on the street on a Friday night, for fuck's sake? 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. Having fun without a million quid in your bank account is an offense soon to be punishable by death in London, and a last-ditch attempt to salvage a bit of money and enjoyment from this swirling toilet water could land you seven years in the bin. 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 occur will also, of course, be all their own fault.
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