Why Are London Cops So Worried About Laughing Gas?

For Lambeth council, clamping down on NOS canister litter is an easier win that focusing on the borough's real drug issues.

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Jul 14 2015, 2:50pm

A photo of piled up laughing gas canisters released by Lambeth Council recently

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Lambeth is a London borough with high levels of crack cocaine use and life-ruining gang-related violence. But police there have finally decided to get tough on drugs—by targeting people who have the temerity to drop laughing gas canisters in the street on Friday and Saturday nights.

This week, the Met and Lambeth Council revealed that over the last year they have noticed an increase in the number of NOS canisters, also known as whippets, discarded in local gutters. A photo of the things, distributed by the local council, is doing the rounds on the internet, but to me the way they're piled up looks unnatural—almost as if whoever took it has their own agenda to push.

Read: All the Drug Dealers You'll Meet in Your 20s

Anyway, Lambeth has decided to invoke a new power, a Public Spaces Protection Order, which will allow the council to dole out fines of up to £1,000 [$1,500] to people caught using, possessing, chucking away, or selling legal highs such as nitrous oxide in the Borough. So, you could get fined £1,000 for 15 seconds of synthetic laughing. Or for dropping a little metal thing on the floor.

"We want to protect local people's quality of life and get on top of this problem," said Lambeth councillor Jane Edbrooke, cabinet member for neighborhoods. "Legal highs are linked to antisocial behavior, drug dealing, and particularly littering around south London nightlife hotspots such as Vauxhall and Clapham.

"The mess left in some of our neighborhoods after a Friday and Saturday night just isn't acceptable," continued Edbrooke, "with families having to witness this behavior on a regular basis, as well as coming across these canisters in their playgrounds, parks, and streets."

Nitrous oxide is not a particularly harmful drug. Not compared to GHB or crystal meth, the real problem nightlife drugs in these parts of south London. NOS is a highly dangerous drug only in the minds of the general public, who have been fed a diet of hippy crack scare stories because it is the drug of the moment. Laughing gas is yet to directly cause a death in the UK (all the deaths linked to nitrous oxide, despite what the media says, are cases of asphyxia caused by contraptions used to take the drug). Next to laughing gas, GHB, crack, crystal meth—all of these things are diabolic.

The Lambeth move looks like being one of many. Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced last year under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 to give councils and police extra powers to tackle activities in public deemed likely to have a negative effect on the quality of life for locals. On June 1, the town of Taunton in Somerset introduced a PSPO ban on people taking intoxicating substances including alcohol and legal highs in public places. Taunton followed in the footsteps of Lincoln City Council, who introduced a similar legal high PSPO scheme in February.

The tactic is being used by Lambeth and others despite the arrival of a new psychoactive substances law from central government later this year. The main aim of the new law, which will introduce a blanket ban on all psychoactive drugs with exceptions for substances such as alcohol, coffee, and medicine, is to prevent teenagers and vulnerable people getting easy access to powerful synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone-type stimulants via high street head shops.

Laughing gas paraphernalia seized in Shoreditch, East London last month. Photo via Met Police

However, the decision to go after laughing gas users in Lambeth is a symptom of an increasingly PR-led (rather than intelligence-led) form of policing in the UK, often fueled by what the noisiest members of the public happen to be kicking up a fuss about at the time, rather than what the police should actually be doing.

It's an attitude that appears to be particularly prevalent when it comes to tackling drugs. Like all public services, the police are increasingly aware of the power of PR in influencing people's perceptions of their success. So even though fining people for inhaling a balloon of laughing gas—a light-headed high that most mothers experience when they opt for "gas and air" during childbirth—is a relative waste of time, the police will do it because it's essentially an exercise in placating the public.

It's a far cry from the "Brixton Experiment," a scheme set up down the road from Vauxhall and Clapham by Brian Paddick when he took over as Borough Commander in 2000. He introduced the scheme after discovering that one of his officers was on a charge for failing to arrest someone for cannabis, which led to all the other PCs arresting everyone with cannabis on them for fear of getting told off. In Brixton, a mass weed clampdown could have created civil unrest.

Brian Paddick in Southwark. Photo via Liberal Democrats

Paddick knew that the real problem in Brixton was not cannabis, but crack and heroin, which was fueling robbery and violence. So he took the heat off cannabis users and blitzed the Class-A drug trade, resulting in a fall in serious crime.

Despite his brave approach, Paddick was kicked out of his job after an article in the Mail on Sunday claimed his gay lover had watched him smoke weed (an allegation the newspaper later retracted and paid damages for). But by then the damage had been done and Paddick's progressive experiment was mothballed.

Now, 15 years later, police in Lambeth will shortly be having to book people for inhaling laughing gas from balloons because they might cause a bit of litter. This is not progress.

The new focus for local and regional police forces appears to be to operate at the level of a public service duty, a bit like an on-call garbage removal firm. It's certainly easier, for cash-strapped police forces who now have tiny budgets for catching the big guys because surveillance and undercover work is so expensive and time consuming, to tackle drugs in this 2D way. If there is a specific problem the public want to get cleared up, the police will respond. And if the police can clear up this problem with as much showboating as possible, everyone is happy, blissfully unaware that the most damaging crimes are feeling less heat because they are invisible to the public.

This type of happy-clappy policing first got the high profile treatment in Manchester in 2011, during a PR event that could have actually been called Britain's first "Drug Bust Safari," although it actually went by the ironic name of Operation Audacious.

Around 150 schoolchildren, community workers and business leaders had a ringside seat in minibuses as 1,000 police officers jumped from meat wagons and mounted nearly 100 dawn raids on smalltime drug dealers' homes, dragging the culprits out in front of the cameras in their pants. #OpAudacious was launched in a multimedia publicity whirl on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, with senior officers at pains to stress that the biggest drugs bust in Manchester's history was as a direct result of public concern.

That the police are responsive to the concerns of the public all sounds fine. With the positions of Police and Crime Commissioners now secured by vote there is an added need for the actions of local police forces to appease their electorate.

But in terms of cost effectiveness, in terms of "good policing," this kind of "call out" policing is a waste of money. To take up officers' time by targeting those fiendish late-night laughing gas litterers in Lambeth smacks of a positive feedback loop that pleases PR people and Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells types, while achieving virtually nothing in the way of serious crime prevention.

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