Drugs war idiocy

Government policy and science part company yet again, writes Eddie Ford. Banning laughing gas for recreational purposes is, when it comes to health, sheer irrationality

If you go around a park nowadays, amidst the litter of cans and bottles there is good chance that you will come across little metal canisters (whippits). They are used to hold nitrous oxide, or laughing gas - apparently the preferred drug of people between 16 and 24 (presumably apart from alcohol and nicotine).

First synthesised in 1772, nitrous oxide actually got the name ‘laughing gas’ a few decades later from Sir Humphry Davy after he inhaled it from a silk bag - he later stated that by doing so he “lost touch with all external things” and entered a “world of newly connected and newly modified ideas”. For about 200 years it was administered by dentists and some doctors for pain control because of its anaesthetic properties.

Last week, defying science and reason, Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, announced government plans to make the selling of nitrous oxide illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - supported by Sir Keir’s triangulating Labour Party, naturally (got to keep as close to the Tories as possible). Compounding the nonsense, Gove seems unaware of the fact that selling nitrous oxide is already illegal under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act banning legal highs, which was introduced by the Theresa May government - a move which must have delighted drug-dealers as it could only but boost their returns. No doubt it will be the same again with the new (re)ban.


The sole difference between these two acts is that, under the Psychoactive Substances Act, possession for personal use is not a criminal offence - whilst, under the MDA 1971, possession for personal use will attract a penalty of up to two years in prison - if nitrous oxide is put into ‘class C’ or placed in an even higher class. The 2019-20 England and Wales Crime Survey found that 8.7% of 16 to 24-year-olds had taken it - up from 6.1% in 2012-13. Therefore, even if only 10% of current nitrous oxide users got a custodial sentence, this would double the prison population! In other words, the latest policy turn by the government is complete madness - but that sums up the cruel and futile ‘war on drugs’. Sometimes you think government ministers and professional dealers must be working hand in hand.

Making things even crazier, the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that nitrous oxide should not be subjected to control under the MDA 1971 as it would be “disproportionate” with the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide and hence could have “significant unintended consequences”. Furthermore, said the advisory body, such control could create “significant burdens” for legitimate use of the substance - of which there are very many, especially in surgery. Nitrous oxide is also used in the food industry as a whipped-cream propellant, and as an oxidiser in rocket propellants and motor racing to increase the power output of engines. Indeed, nitrous oxide is on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines.

Between 2001 and 2020, according to a government report, there were 56 registered deaths involving nitrous oxide in England and Wales - 45 of them since 2010. However, complicating things, that figure includes deaths which occurred in medical settings, so cannot all be ascribed to misuse - deaths occurring due to secondary effects, rather than first-hand effects, of the gas. Some experts reckon that there is around one death per year in the UK from among approximately one million nitrous oxide users. Excessive use, or misuse, can sometimes lead to nerve damage in the spinal cord due to a vitamin B12 deficiency.

You cannot help but be reminded of the story of professor David Nutt - one of the world’s leading neuropsycho-pharmacologists specialising in the research of drugs that affect the brain and conditions such as addictions. He is also chairman of Drug Science - a non-profit organisation which he founded in 2010 to provide independent, evidence-based information. At the height of the ecstasy scare triggered by the death of Leah Betts in 1995, who took an MDMA tablet and then drank excessive amounts of water, professor Nutt used to appear regularly on the radio and TV - calmingly saying that young people should be taught how to take the drug safely and how it would be a good idea to legalise it, so that those who use it would know exactly what they were taking, and so on (just as, when you go into a pub, you know the difference between whiskey at 40% alcohol and beer at 4% and can therefore regulate your drinking accordingly). All very sensible and sane, which naturally made him hated by the rightwing press and government circles.

Nutt got into serious trouble, however, when in January 2009 he wrote a half-ironic editorial in the Journal of Psychopharmacology on the “overlooked addiction” of “equasy” - pointing out that more die each year of horse riding than ecstasy. Is horse-riding banned? No, rather, you give evidence-based advice on how to limit any possible damage - how you should always wear a helmet, have riding lessons, get to know your horse, inform drivers on how to behave when passing a horse, etc, etc.

The then Labour home secretary, Alan Johnson, insisted that professor Nutt be dismissed from the ACMD. Explaining his decision in the pages of The Guardian, Johnson argued that Nutt had to go, because you “cannot be both a government advisor and a campaigner against government policy”. With monstrous hypocrisy he declared that Nutt’s comments about horse-riding and ecstasy were “a political rather than a scientific point” - completely reversing reality. Johnson and people like him have declared a war on science: criminalising large swathes of society and creating staggering profits for increasingly ruthless drugs gangs, who are very grateful to the government.


The Weekly Worker has for a very long time been campaigning against the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’ - which might have begun over the pond with Richard Nixon. Some readers might even remember when cannabis was legal. But, with the passage of the MDA 1971, cannabis was listed as a Class B drug - remaining that way except for 2004-09, when it was classified as C (a lower punishment category), before being moved back to B. Then there were ‘purple hearts’ (part of the amphetamine craze of the 1960s), which were particularly associated with the Mods. Except they were not purple and not heart-shaped - but never mind.

We have all read our literature. Famously, Sherlock Holmes liked to inject himself with a 7% solution of cocaine and occasionally went to Limehouse in London’s East End to enjoy a pipe of opium - not to mention Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English opium-eater. Then there is a passage in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Helen of Troy dopes wine with a drug that “took away painful memories and the bite of pain and anger” - those drinking the wine “could not shed a tear even at the death of a parent” or “even if his brother or son were put to the sword before his eyes”. As for William Shakespeare, drugs and potions play a notable part in many of his works1. Obviously, the list is endless.

Historically, this ‘war on drugs’ in Britain is a pretty recent phenomenon - manifestly being a crackdown on the lower orders. You could talk about David Lloyd George and the watering of the beer during World War I - specifically over concerns about munitions workers, who then played a key role, of course. There was even a relatively well-known song complaining about the policy: ‘Lloyd George’s Beer Song’.2 His government also introduced licensing hours for public houses in cities and industrial areas. Furthermore, Lloyd George brought in a “no treating order”, with the stipulation that any drink ordered had to be for the person supplied - no buying of rounds for your mates - with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment. Apparently this measure would “free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny”. Yet another indication of the absolute gap between rulers and those whom they ruled.

You cannot stop people trying to escape an often-hellish life, whatever form it takes - positive and negative. In Scotland, workers coming out of the shipyards along the Clyde used have their pints of ‘heavy’ and then go on to the whiskey in a mad rush - getting absolutely blotto in the process - because opening hours were so limited. Last orders were called at 10pm. Needless to say, their work was hard and home conditions crowded and often fraught. As it happens, it was a Labour government under Tony Blair in 2005 that civilised licensing hours and made us more European - pubs were allowed to apply for licences as permissive as 24 hours a day - igniting a moral panic among sections of the press, though in practice most pubs chose not to apply for licences past midnight.

Coming back to the crux of the argument, there is an annual death toll from alcohol of nearly 30,000 - putting the number of deaths caused by nitrous oxide into proper context. Getting things really into perspective, deaths from helium outnumber those of nitrous oxide more than tenfold. Yet strangely there is not a clamour to ban helium. Michael Gove said the ban on nitrous oxide would stop parks being turned into “drug-taking arenas” - yet you could say exactly the same about alcohol, which is far more addictive and potentially dangerous (let alone tobacco). If he wanted to be logically consistent, Gove would either have to ban booze and helium as well - or legalise all drugs, the most rational approach from a communist perspective. But he has done neither and we are now stuck with another unworkable and oppressive drugs law. We will now have police raids on newsagents and other outlets, looking for these canisters, inevitably driving them underground.

Anti-drugs legislation is doing far more damage than the drugs themselves. Banning drugs magnifies the problems - never solves them. Many people use something, legal or illegal, to pick themselves up and get them through the day. Young people will now turn to something else, of course, because part of human culture since its very beginning has involved taking various substances. Partially for reasons of religious and spiritual communion, but also because humans love a party - they take booze, mushrooms, blue lotus, coca leaves, peyote, betel nuts, black henbane, harmal, soma, haoma …

For the vast majority of human history, we have known what we were consuming - it was a communal activity, not an individualistic or alienated one. The older generation would advise the younger one about what and what not to do: evidence-based wisdom was passed down. Nowadays, young people are often left to their own devices and that is not a healthy situation.

  1. . bbc.com/future/article/20140416-do-shakespeares-poisons-work.↩︎

  2. . en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lloyd_George’s_Beer_Song.↩︎