In the past few years, laughing gas has firmly found its place as a narcotic of the masses. Only, in some instances, you couldn't class it as a narcotic at all – while the sale of nitrous oxide for recreational use is prohibited in the UK, it's still legal and widely used by dentists and in whipped cream canisters. Are ice-cream van drivers narcotics dealers? Is "David After Dentist" a narcotics user? Are these people going to have their homes raided by police snatch squads? It seems unlikely.
Nitrous oxide's partial legality is probably why it's now so common to see rugby boys in Ralphy fleeces and nice girls in rowing hoodies huffing £3 balloons in festival campsites. It's not illegal to inhale it, which has made it the safe drug of choice for anyone under the age of 25 who calls cannabis "dope" or thinks that one tab of acid will have you tearing your own skin off with a potato peeler. And that's apparently a lot of people; according to the latest Home Office figures, an estimated 350,000 Brits filled their lungs with the stuff last year.
But despite its relative safety, it would be remiss not to mention the documented laughing gas deaths. And while those deaths might be few and far between, they're still more common than casualties stemming from, say, khat, the mildly narcotic leaves that were criminalised by Home Secretary Theresa May earlier this year. So could the fact that it's arguably more of a legitimate target than khat entice May into making laughing gas the latest enemy in her "battle" against legal highs?
When I contacted the Home Office to ask them whether laughing gas is going to become illegal any time soon, they responded as such: “Nitrous oxide is a legal substance that has a number of legitimate medical and industrial uses, but any suggestion of abuse, particularly by young people, is of concern. Like all drugs there are health risks, and nitrous oxide should not be experimented with.” Nothing surprising there.
In the emailed statement I was sent, it was also mentioned that Jeremy Browne – a Liberal Democrats MP – has written to various festival organisers, urging them to take special care to police the sale of laughing gas. So, while I might not have got a perfectly straight answer out of them, the Home Office's intentions seemed pretty benevolent. Essentially, they're attempting to dissuade the public from abusing laughing gas and doing their best to curb the popularity of the drug during the festival season.
However, they do seem to be missing a pretty crucial opportunity to reduce harm in the form of their harm reduction website, Talk to FRANK. At the time of writing, the site is spreading some potentially dangerous misinformation. "Nitrous oxide" is listed twice, with one entry describing it as a "volatile substance" and grouping it together with solvents, aerosols and some other nasty stuff you definitely don't want to intentionally hold in your lungs until your brain starts making drum beats out of people's conversations.
The Talk to FRANK entry for nitrous oxide. (Click to enlarge)
This classification is, quite simply, false: butane and the like are much more harmful than nitrous oxide and have different risks associated with their use. In fact, a 17-year-old boy died last year after he confused butane aerosol for laughing gas.
It also states that, “like other volatile substances found in glue or aerosols, [laughing gas] can cause death even on first-time use. This is due to suffocation from a loss of the oxygen available to you.” Once again, this is misleading. I was told by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) – a group of scientists who make it their life's work to know what they’re talking about – that sudden death is a genuine risk of solvents and aerosols, and occurs because of the effect on the heart, not because of suffocation.
Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, does not kill when used responsibly. Deaths, as far as we know, are usually preventable cases of suffocation brought about after dangerous methods of use, like filling a bag with laughing gas and putting it over your head or wearing a gas mask that continually pumps nitrous into your system – stuff any cognisant human should hopefully realise isn't the best of ideas, regardless of whether or not it results in you getting high.
For nitrous oxide, use of safer methods – like limiting the amount inhaled through balloons – can allow people to radically reduce the risks of use, whereas there are no methods to prevent bodily harm or death while inhaling solvent fumes.
The issue here is that, if people get the impression from FRANK that the risks of solvents and aerosols are comparable to those of laughing gas, someone who has enjoyed nitrous oxide safely and without harmful consequences may think they can achieve the same high just as safely from something incredibly dangerous, like computer cleaner or butane. However, even after repeated attempts by the ISCD to get the information on FRANK amended, no one has bothered to update it.
A bunch of discarded nitrous oxide canisters. (Photo via)
With that in mind, it's clear that due attention isn't being paid to the realistic dangers associated with laughing gas. So, supposing that the usage stats and skewed view of its risks land laughing gas in the same position as other Daily Mail-lamented "terror drugs" before it (mephedrone and khat, for example) – what would the government's next move be?
Adam Winstock, the man behind the annual Global Drug Survey, is sceptical about any rational laws being applied to nitrous oxide if it were to become the next legal high to be banned and forced into the black market.
“It’s rather impossible to know what this government is ever going to do, and clearly whatever evidence is provided they’ll make their own minds up anyway," he told me. "I think it would be remarkably difficult to ban – the implications for the food industry and its other commercial applications would be damaging for those businesses.”
Putting Winstock's comments to Tim Williams from the ISCD, he gave me an explanation as to why our government consistently seem to "make their own minds up" when it comes to drugs policy, rather than respecting the assessments of scientists whose job it is to study drugs:
“I think politicians have different agendas and they have other pressures on them. Drug use is a very emotive subject and I think sometimes politicians act with emotion rather than with rationality… Assessing the harms of drug legislation is something that politicians aren't very good at. When a drug is banned, that's effectively putting it into the hands of criminal gangs who can sell a substance under the pretence that it’s something else, increasing the risks to the user.”
So, going on what Winstock told me, it looks unlikely that the government will be able to criminalise nitrous oxide effectively without damaging plenty of British businesses in the process – something they're unlikely to want to do in a time of austerity. But the issue does again throw up the topic of UK drugs policy.
The government's current approach to reducing the harm of legal highs clearly isn't working. Firstly, when it's erroneous, the harm reduction information they put out is arguably more likely to cause harm than prevent it. Secondly, criminalising the drugs only hands them over to gangs to meddle with or forces clandestine white-coats in secretive labs to alter a drug's chemical composition in order to dodge the law, creating an entirely new, untested risk that's then circulated around the UK's nostrils and lungs.
Perhaps the Home Office could learn something from New Zealand's new approach towards legal highs – instructing drug companies to put their newly synthesised chemicals through clinical trials and allowing health experts to deem whether or not they are "low risk" enough for human consumption. Because the way things are going at the moment, this perpetual cycle of drug creation and prohibition forged by UK drugs policy looks likely to cause more harm than it prevents.
UPDATE (15:38 on 06/08/13): Since this article was published, the Department of Health have responded to the ISCD to say that they will look into the issue raised about the dangers surrounding laughing gas on the Talk to FRANK website.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
More stories about drugs policy in the UK:
Is Tabloid Outrage Just Getting More People into Legal Highs? Everything You Wanted to Know About the UK Drugs Scene