There Was a Laughing-Gas Protest Party Outside Westminster This Weekend

Demonstrators gathered in Parliament Square to inhale NOS in protest against the UK government's new Psychoactive Substances Bill, which bans basically anything that'll get you high.

Demonstrators in Parliament Square. Photos by Chris Bethell

Parliament Square on Saturday looked like a Friday afternoon at BoomTown Fair. Around 80 people had gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to inhale laughing gas in protest against the Tory government's Psychoactive Substances Bill, its foolproof plan to stop people from getting high by banning the sale and supply of "any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect" (except for food, medication, and the taxman's two favorite vices: alcohol and cigarettes). Because if existing drug policy has shown us anything, it's that if you ban people from taking drugs they'll just immediately flush their tabs and pills and fall in line.

The demonstration, organized by campaign groups The Psychedelic Society and the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), wasn't as highly attended as the Facebook page had promised—just over 1,500 were supposedly going to be there—because these things never are; it's a lot easier to click a mouse than venture into central London. Still, as Big Ben chimed at 3:00 PM, there were enough demonstrators seemingly hyperventilating into balloons to confuse all the tourists blocking the streets with their selfie sticks.

Stephen Reid handing out balloons

I spoke to Stephen Reid, the founder and director of the Psychedelic Society, about why they had organized the demonstration. "We accept that legal highs—and drugs in general—carry some risk," he said. "But there are lots of things in society that carry risks, like horse riding, skydiving, bungee jumping, and alcohol. We don't ban these things outright; we let people make their own decisions."

Demonstrators had made banners bearing the slogan #MyMindMyChoice to highlight that very point. Why ban this stuff, they argued, when its use only affects the user?

Problem is, while that may well be the case for the relatively harmless laughing-gas canisters and poppers—both of which are banned under the new bill—it's harder to defend someone's inalienable right to ingest a substance that might kill them.

The Home Office is banning the trade of legal highs in reaction to a number of deaths that were reportedly connected to their use—a contentious number, mind, and one that pales in comparison to the amount of alcohol or tobacco-related deaths per year. That said, consuming legal highs can undoubtedly be risky—the majority of them are synthesized and hurled out onto the market with little testing, and hardly any scientific research has been carried out on their long-term effects, in part because they haven't been around long enough for anyone to experience what those effects might be.

In the short term, it's already very clear that some of these substances really aren't worth your time or money. Synthetic cannabis, for example, sold under brand names like Spice or K2, has already landed a number of people in the hospital; become a whole new horrible thing for people to get addicted to; and caused havoc in UK prisons, with inmates smoking it, temporarily going a bit nuts, and starting fights with guards, other prisoners, or, sometimes, inanimate objects or walls.

Of course, that still doesn't mean the best way to deal with the problem is to simply brush it under the carpet. "One of the ridiculous things about the proposals is that they're not going to make people safer," said Stephen. "It drives the trade underground, making it harder for people to access proper education. It also often leads to the substances being cut with dangerous adulterants, and it won't even reduce the number of people using these things."

He had a point: None of the protesters I spoke to said the ban was going to stop them from using laughing gas, as it'll still be available online and in catering shops in small quantities. There wasn't much chatter about any other specific legal high—no one was outraged that they'll no longer be able to buy "Gogaine" over-the-counter—but everyone was angry about the government's continued blanket ban of all psychoactive substances.

Another organization behind the protest was the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC), a network of localized activist groups that campaign for legal home growing and a regulated cannabis market. I spoke to Greg de Hoedt, UKCSC president, about the problem with banning narcotics instead of decriminalizing and regulating them.

"If cannabis hadn't been banned and made illegal to buy, people wouldn't be buying the equivalent legal options," he said. "People don't want to get in trouble with the law, but are willing to risk their health by ingesting something that is not meant for human consumption. They should allow safer recreational substances like cannabis."

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The demonstration isn't going to guilt trip the Home Office into scrapping its new bill. But then it wasn't really meant to. It was intended, it seemed, to show up the UK's still draconian attitude towards drugs, compared to other countries like Uruguay, Portugal, and even the engineer of the global war on drugs, the United States, which has finally taken steps toward a grown-up approach to dealing with stuff that gets you high.

Not all legal highs are as innocuous as laughing gas or poppers. But if one thing is for certain, it's that dealing with the intricacies of all these new psychoactive substances isn't as simple as just banning them all and hoping they'll go away.

Follow Chris Giles and Chris Bethell on Twitter.

See more photos from the protest below: